Court reforms risk isolating ‘most vulnerable in society’, MPs have warned

The most vulnerable people in society could be excluded from getting access to justice if plans to modernise courts go ahead, MPs have warned.

A report by the Commons Justice Committee raises “serious concerns” that the proposed upheaval to the courts system could leave victims of crime and other vulnerable people like those with learning difficulties prevented from getting the legal advice and help they need.

Committee chairman Bob Neill 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.

“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.”

The plans, led by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and senior judges, aim to bring the court process into the 21st century with more video hearings but also is seeking to close existing magistrates court and other court buildings, the report said.

It added: “But MPs have heard that 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 court or tribunal case with no legal advice.”

The committee called for more face-to-face advice for those who need it and the continued use of paperwork for people who do not have access to a computer or phone.

It said court buildings should be repaired and improved, particularly for disabled people and warned “video equipment and WiFi cannot be relied upon to the end of serving justice”.

It urged the MoJ to re-think guidelines on how long victims and witnesses can be expected to spend getting to and from court and attending trials which can take up to 12 hours a day.

The report added: “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.”

John Bache, the national chairman of the Magistrates Association, welcomed the report and said he shared concerns raised, adding: “These concerns must be addressed before these reforms are taken forward if the reform programme is not to compromise access to justice.

“We strongly support the recommendation of this report that there should be no further court closures until the impact of previous closures has been assessed.

“Justice should, wherever possible, be administered locally and many courts are already worryingly remote from the communities that they serve.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We don’t believe this report presents a balanced assessment of reform but will carefully address the committee’s findings and respond fully in due course.

“More than 250,000 people have used our online services in the past year, with more than 80% satisfied with their experience.

“Those that struggle digitally can also choose to use paper versions, or speak to someone on the phone or face to face if they prefer.”

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