Court users with limited access to computers, poor literacy or limited understanding of how the law works could be disadvantaged and potentially left going through a case with no legal advice as a result of the courts and tribunals modernisation programme, MPs have said.
The modernisation programme, led by the Ministry of Justice and senior judges, has seen the introduction of more IT and video hearings but also the closure of existing magistrates court and other court buildings.
In a report, Court and Tribunal reforms, the Justice Select Committee called for more face-to-face advice for those who need it and supported the retention of paper-based processes for people who do not have access to a computer or phone.
The Ministry of Justice should also re-think new guidelines on how long victims and witnesses can be expected to spend getting to and from and attending trials, the MPs said.
“The Committee recognises the great potential that electronic systems have to deliver more efficient and effective outcomes for those that can access them, and that modernisation is desperately needed. But it cannot be at the expense of shutting off justice for those who might be left behind,” the Committee said.
The report added that it was time for remaining court buildings to be improved and repaired, particularly for disabled court users, and noted that even for those able to use it, video equipment and WiFi cannot be relied upon to the end of serving justice.
Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said: "We understand that courts and tribunals are strained to breaking, with systems that ever more people are having to try to navigate for themselves. Court staff and the judiciary are trying hard to improve services in the face of underfunding and cuts. But we are concerned that a vulnerable person – a victim of crime, a woman seeking an order to protect her children, a person with learning difficulties – could be left trying to negotiate enough time at a library to file papers or tune in to an evidence hearing where they are trying to get justice.
“In the kinds of cases heard in many courts, both victim and perpetrator may have recognised vulnerabilities and find it difficult to understand or participate in the process or exercise their right to be heard. The Ministry must halt planned deep staff cuts in court buildings until it is confident it can provide a proper alternative service, and end further court closures until the past effect of closing courts on the people who use them has been properly assessed.
“It is the heart, an essential and fundamental principle of our entire justice system that it is open to all. That must be a reality, not a nice idea. We understand and support the principle that modernisation is overdue. But we ask the Government to pause for breath to make sure that everyone of us who needs the court system - to manage a divorce, to seek fair payment, or to get through family cases and criminal cases - must be able to get to court, to access justice, where and when they need to."