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Justice system reforms failing to take account of digital best practice

The government has cut legal aid, increased court fees, but not considered the consequences for access to justice

18 October 2016

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Proposals for transforming the UK’s justice system must be set out by reference to clear objectives and include strict evaluation processes before being rolled out, a leading access to justice campaigner has said.

Former Legal Action Group director Roger Smith has long been an advocate of technology as a means of closing the justice gap and is a supporter of the principles behind the current proposals for online small claims. But, he told Solicitors Journal, the government’s ‘Transforming our justice system’ paper was flawed and a pilot stage assessing practicalities and financial aspects was yet to be written into the project as a prerequisite preliminary stage.

At the moment, Smith said, the government was raising cash from court closures – ostensibly for the development stage of the online courts project – without a plan for ongoing funding. ‘They’re flogging off capital by selling the courts but there is no plan after that.’

Smith also took issue with the lack of targets and benchmarks to measure the success of the programme, saying online dispute resolution could bring down the cost of claims for litigants but that financial metrics were missing from the project.

‘Unlike anybody else the government doesn’t appear to look at how much is being spent and it appears content with divvying up the costs at the end,’ he said, suggesting a more suitable approach would be to look at how tech companies would approach the project.

‘If Amazon were doing it, what would they do? They would look at the volume of claims and average costs. So, let’s assume a number of claims of X – a reasonable number would be to set it at the one we had last year – and then estimate costs at Y – based on what a litigant would reasonably be prepared to pay for this service. We have to have these kinds of metrics and targets. If money is involved, you have to test the assumptions.’

What’s more, according to the former Justice director, the paper had failed to properly address access to justice issues. ‘And that’s dishonest. The government has cut legal aid, they have increased [court] fees, but they have not considered the consequences for access to justice.’

Smith addressed the point in a post on his technology and access to justice blog, discussing two recent papers on digital project management. Set against the best practice for digital projects highlighted in these documents, he said, the ‘Transforming our justice system’ proposals revealed ‘some failure to take account of such principles, suggesting potential difficulties at a later date.’

The first of the two papers Smith considered, ‘Making Digital Work: 12 Questions for Trustees to Consider’, by the Charity Commission, suggests a series of points trustees should take into account, including on measuring the success of online service delivery. The second, by France-based international business school INSEAD, is entitled ‘Making digital work for you’ and contains ten ‘very reasonable’ – according to Smith - recommendations to guide management through the digital world.

Looking at how these requirements would translate to online dispute mechanisms, Smith said the current ODR proposals contained no testing of assumptions with potential court users, no research into options with service users and how the courts’ service will test and review findings, and no apparent market research into the availability of similar services and whether a partnership would be appropriate. There is also no statement of key metrics or benchmark for the assessment of quality of service.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'We want a justice system that works for everyone. That means creating a system that is just, efficient and simple. We are investing £1bn to reform and digitise our courts. By making the best use of technology we can improve access to justice and the experience for all court users, in particular vulnerable victims and witnesses.'

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief of Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @jeanyvesgilg

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Technology Tribunals & Courts Legal Aid Courts & Judiciary

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Online Court odr Legal Action Group legal aid Courts Transforming our justice system