A group of academics has teamed up with HM Courts & Tribunals Service to produce audio-visual guides to support lay court users involved in virtual hearings.
Linda Mulcahy, professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law, told the Gazette that the pandemic has raised awareness of the problems that the digitally disadvantaged experience when using online services, such as lack of access to a laptop, the inability to pay for a regular internet connection, inadequate internet skills or poor bandwidth.
Mulcahy is part of a research team that will produce a series of short films for use in specific courts and tribunals with the needs of the lay user in mind. HMCTS is a project partner.
The films will be made available on HMCTS’s website in the next couple of months. The team will then conduct focus groups with disadvantaged user groups and seek feedback from lawyers about the films.
Mulcahy said: 'Drawing on what we have learned, we will create a second version of the films for the HMCTS website. As an offshoot of this research we hope to produce a design guide for use in creating information for lay users of the justice system which takes into account the needs of people with different educational abilities, digital skills sets and diverse neurodivergent needs.'
The team is seeking views on how existing guidance for the public can be improved and is keen to hear from solicitors who have attended video hearings. The survey closes on 31 March.
Mulcahy said: 'One of the challenges we are facing is the production of guidance that is suitable for everyone. This involves producing enough information about the technology to help people prepare for video hearings, without giving them so much information about the process that it causes stress. We are also aware that practices across tribunals and courts differ considerably and remain unclear how judges are making decisions about which types of case and people are suitable for video hearings. This is important if we are to assess the characteristics and abilities of our audience for films about video hearings.'
Transform Justice has previously conducted research which suggests virtual hearings negatively affect unrepresented defendants. Its director, Penelope Gibbs, said the survey was an excellent information-gathering exercise on what would help lay users to access online hearings.
Gibbs stressed that it was also important to work out how lay users experience online justice, by observing hearings across jurisdictions, and to find out how online justice impacts effective participation and outcomes.
The research team comprises Mulcahy, Emma Rowden, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment at Oxford Brookes University, Anna Tsalapatanis, a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford, and Lucy Klippan, a freelance designer from Sydney. The research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.