A group of MPs that has been investigating the government's £1bn courts reform programme since the start of the year has today demanded an immediate moratorium on court closures.
The moratorium is one of 36 recommendations made by the House of Commons justice select committee in a damning report published this afternoon.
The committee said court closures in urban and rural areas have created 'serious difficulties' for many court users, with 'worrying implications for access to justice'. No more courts should be closed 'pending robust independent analysis' of the effect of the courts that have already been shut down.
The committee acknowledged that HMCTS has achieved some success in developing user-friendly digital processes but warned of 'clear risks to fairness' inviting unrepresented defendants to enter pleas online in criminal cases. The committee recommends restricting online pleas to defendants who have obtained legal advice. Fully video remand hearings should not be introduced before 'robust' piloting and evaluation have been done, along with sufficient investment in video equipment and reliable WiFi.
The committee was concerned that some people are calling HMCTS about their case on pay-as-you-go mobile phones, which may incur high call charges. HMCTS is told to establish a freephone service similar to the system for Universal Credit.
HMCTS's 7.30am-7.30pm travel benchmark could create access barriers for an 'unacceptably high' proportion of court users, 'including many who live in poverty, who have caring responsibilities or who are otherwise vulnerable'. The committee proposes an 8am-6pm benchmark.
The committee received 'powerful evidence of a court system in administrative chaos' with staff shortages in many courts 'so serious that they may undermine access to justice and threaten to compromise the fairness of proceedings'.
One of the committee's main concerns 'is that enhancing access to justice appears to be ancillary to the reform programme rather than being adopted as its central goal'.
The committee said: 'Had access to justice been the primary focus of the reforms, we do not think we would have received such a volume of evidence criticising the approach of HMCTS... HMCTS’s enthusiasm for video links and video hearings is in sharp contrast to the views of people with first-hand experience of using this barely researched technology, who pointed to the communication barriers that it can create.'
The Law Society welcomed the report. Simon Davis, president, said: 'Whilst we broadly support efforts to improve court efficiency through better technology, there will be times when only a face-to-face physical hearing will deliver justice.'
Jo Hickman, director of Public Law Project, said it was currently unclear how digitised court proceedings would uphold the principle of open justice, which is addressed in the report.
'Justice reform should aim to increase the accountability of public decision-makers, enhance the quality of decision-making, and improve access to justice. The introduction of online procedures may meet these aims if implemented well but, crucially, the impact of any reforms need to be fully understood before changes are made,' Hickman said.
The Magistrates Association backed the committee's recommendation to pause court closures. The association's chair, John Bache, said: 'Justice should, wherever possible, be administered locally and many courts are already worryingly remote from the communities that they serve.'