Inadequate Wi-Fi, poor IT infrastructure, delays due to dwindling staff and insufficient evaluation of reforms - the full extent of concerns about the government’s courts reform programme have emerged in evidence from the likes of district judges, police and the Law Society in evidence submitted to MPs.
The House of Commons justice select committee is looking at the effects of HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s court reform programme. Serious doubts have been cast over how successful the reforms will be based on some of the evidence received by the committee, which was published this week.
The Legal Committee of HM Council of District Judges (Magistrates’ Courts) says it has seen no evidence that HMCTS has considered the lack of digital access of litigants in person, who are rising in number due to legal aid cuts for private family law cases.
HMCTS appears to assume that unrepresented defendants, including those who cannot access an online process, will attend court and be able to access a duty solicitor. However, district judges are already seeing delays in the court session as defendants queue up to see the duty solicitor, ‘who in turn has to go through the laborious process of securely accessing a digital file’, a process made more difficult due to poor Wi-Fi.
The district judges says HMCTS is ‘somewhat naive’ to expect video-link hearings to address the issue of court closures. A ‘significant reduction’ in administrative staff has meant that cases are not being uploaded onto ‘court store’ so a judge is unable to prepare an often busy court in advance. Documents are not being uploaded efficiently, so judges are ‘having to either chase them up to get the documents uploaded in the first place, or trawling through irrelevant documents before getting to the relevant ones’.
In its evidence, Thames Valley Police states the criminal justice reforms ‘have focused overly on court closures, driven by potential digital developments, rather than taking a strategic and holistic approach to the whole criminal justice system’.
It is worried about the potential ‘significant’ impact of magistrates’ court closures in Banbury and Maidenhead on accessibility and attendance levels for defendants, victims and witnesses. Parties are unable to download critical evidence in the court estate due to ‘insufficient network capacity’, which the force says is ‘significantly disrupting case progression’.
The Law Society meanwhile says the scale of the reforms proposed for the criminal justice system ‘is highly ambitious and dependent on a level of technological sophistication and reliability of IT that we are not confident can be assured’. An IT breakdown earlier this year ‘raises serious concerns surrounding full reliance on technology with no contingency plan in place should a failure occur’.
The Society says the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS conducted insufficient consultations with lawyers about individual strands of the reform programme as well as its overall objectives. It is ‘particularly concerned’ that it has not been shown ‘any evidence of baseline data’ against which to measure the impact of some of the reforms.