12:03, October 31 212 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-31 12:03:04
Chaotic court system threatens justice for vulnerable, say MPs

The most vulnerable in society are at risk of being excluded from access to justice due to poor digital skills, lack of legal advice, court closures and “dilapidated” courthouses, MPs have warned in a damning critique of the government’s modernisation programmes.

The court system in England and Wales is in “administrative chaos” with staff shortages that threaten to compromise the fairness of legal proceedings, according to the Commons justice select committee.

Sounding the alarm over HM Court and Tribunal Services’ £1.2bn drive to expand online hearings, the all-party committee calls for a halt to plans to close another 77 courts – a process creating “alarming difficulties for many court users, who are now expected to travel too far to attend court and to spend too many hours … doing so”.

The 83-page report is the most critical, parliamentary assessment so far of HMCTS’s proposals and follows the chief magistrate, Emma Arbuthnot, warning that defendants and witnesses may be “deterred from attending completely” by the long distances.

“Poor digital skills, limited access to technology and low levels of literacy and legal knowledge raise barriers against access to new services provided by digital means,” the report says. “HMCTS has not taken sufficient steps to address the needs of vulnerable users who lack adequate legal advice and support. Face-to-face support is essential.”

Between 2010 and 2018, half of magistrates’ courts closed. “There should be no further court closures without robust independent analysis of the effects of closures already implemented,” according to MPs. Travel times to local court should be no longer than an hour and a half by public transport; HMCTS’s calculations are currently based on two hours’ travel each way.

Existing court buildings, the report adds, “are dilapidated and sometimes lack the basics, such as facilities for disabled users”.

It adds: “There are clear risks to fairness in inviting unrepresented defendants to enter pleas online in criminal cases.” Only those who have received legal advice should be allowed to do so.

Bob Neill MP, the Conservative chair of the committee, 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 … 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.

“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.”

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice who gave evidence to the committee, said: “This report shows just how risky is the government’s court reform programme. It highlights how little evidence we have about the effect of video and online hearings on the rights of defendants. Does justice by Skype create justice without empathy? Will swiping right to plead guilty lead to miscarriages of justice? We need to find out before we make irreversible changes to our justice system.”