Access to justice ‘undermined’ due to lacklustre online court services, says The Law Society

New research published by the Law Society of England and Wales has found that the government’s digitisation of the court system is adding to the delays “plaguing” the civil court system and “undermining” people’s access to justice when they need it most. 

A survey of solicitors who have used the Damages Claims, Public Family Law and Probate portals has uncovered the extent of technical issues with the system and the impact of these on the delivery of justice. Law Society president Nick Emmerson, said:

“For seven years, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been modernising the justice system to make it more straightforward, accessible and efficient. Its court reform programme is designed to improve courts and tribunals for court users.

It has had many successes in this time, such as the digital uptake of all probate applications increasing to 80% by December 2022 and more than 70% of all courtrooms able to allow parties to join hearings remotely. However, it is important for HMCTS to learn from the problems in its systems, as well as its successes.”

Their findings show that more than half of solicitors surveyed do not believe the portals are efficient and effective in delivering justice. Emmerson continued:

“We know that modernisation is a work in progress, but this is having a real impact on clients, especially as these portals are often used at an already challenging and difficult time, such as managing the estate of a deceased loved one, handling a child protection matter or getting help with an accident that wasn’t their fault.

The increased delays and associated uncertainty these portals have created are causing additional stress.”

Three in five (62%) respondents reported delays in court proceedings as a result of the portals, which had emotionally impacted their clients. A third (34%) reported increased costs have been passed on to clients.

Across the three portals contributing factors to the delays included timeliness, communication and technical issues along with the lack of HMCTS staff resource to deal with problems.

Probate (75%), Family Public Law (66%) and Damages Claims (46%) portal users reported delays in court proceedings and the administration of justice. The impact on clients was evident. More than half (54%) of Probate users said the online process is taking longer than the paper-based system, three in 10 (29%) experienced poor response times and limited staff knowledge, with nearly one in five (18%) stating this meant there were delays in issuing grants.

Half (50%) of Damages Claims users reported that delays were impacting on clients and a quarter (24%) said the process was burdensome. Seven in 10 (70%) users of the Family Public Law portal reported technical errors and frequent breakdowns and four in five (80%) reported lack of timeliness of technical support. Emmerson added:

“Some of these issues have come about because there simply wasn’t sufficient engagement with the solicitor profession, the advice sector and members of the public when these systems were being designed.

Well designed and thoroughly tested online systems have the potential to increase access, drive efficiency and streamline case management. An efficient court system ensures streamlined case management, fair and transparent proceedings and ultimately, timely access to justice.

We urge government to take our proposals on board as it continues its court reform programme.”

The Law Society’s recommendations include:

  • Improved and consistent communication for those using online systems to help ease the backlogs by reducing demand on the court service.
  • A user-led design and development process involving the public, legal professionals and the advice sector.
  • A central resource containing information and guidance for users of each online court system.
  • Software to improve communication between online court systems and solicitors’ case management systems.
  • Robust data collection and transparency will aid continuous improvement of current and future online court systems.

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