Preventing Digital Exclusion from Online Justice

The UK Government White Paper Transforming Our Justice System (September 2016), and subsequently the introduction of the Prison and Courts Bill in the last Parliament, confirms the plans of the Ministry of Justice and senior judiciary to “automate and digitise the entire process of civil money claims by 2020” and the “interactive triage” role envisaged for litigants-in-person using the “Online Court” for certain civil proceedings. Modernisation and digitisation – including greater use of online procedures and virtual hearings – will also extend to tribunals and criminal proceedings. Traffic offences are already dealt with online in most parts of the country. On 4th June 2018 JUSTICE published the final report Preventing digital exclusion from online justice at Freshfields LLP in London, with an introduction from Chair of the Working Party, Amanda Finlay CBE and  Lord Briggs of Westbourne, Justice of the UK Supreme Court.

The challenge

Lord Justice Briggs’ final Civil Courts Structure Review report emphasised that ensuring access to justice was one of the biggest concerns about digitisation of court processes. The White Paper estimates that 70% of the UK population can be “digital with assistance” and/or “digitally excluded,” meaning they will need support to engage in proceedings online. JUSTICE has been at the forefront of innovation around use of our courts and tribunals.

The Working Party

This project looks in particular at the opportunities and pitfalls of digitalisation and doing justice online and virtually. We brought together a group of our members, and other experts to review how people accessing online services in a range of fields can be better assisted; to identify the necessary features of simple and accessible online interfaces; and the support required for users with differing needs. The Working Party looked at various groups at high risk of digital exclusion from modernised justice services – including homeless people and detainees. It also investigated how assistive technology and accessible design could play a part in minimising barriers facing the “computer challenged”. HMCTS services to provide technical support, i.e. its “Assisted Digital” project, were considered in some detail.

The members of the Working Party were:

  • Amanda Finlay CBE (Chair)
  • Rebecca Agliolo (Elexirr)
  • Christina Marriott (Resolving Doors)
  • Aoife Doolan (Head of Accessibility and Inclusion for HMCTS reform programme) – Observer
  • Alex Just (Pagefield Global Counsel)
  • Sara Lomri (PLP)
  • Dr Sue Prince (University of Exter)
  • Cassie Robinson (Doteveryone)
  • Charlotte Rook (Regional Manager of Midlands PSU)
  • Caroline Sheppard (OBE)
  • Dr Tatiana Tkacukova (Birmingham City University)
  • Dr Joe Tomlinson (University of Sheffield School of Law)
  • James Walker (Resolver)
  • James Wood, QC (Doughty Street)
  • Paul Yates (Freshfields)
  • Rachel Jones (Lawyer, JUSTICE) – Rapporteur

We are very grateful to Freshfields LLP and Pagefield Global Counsel who supported the Working Party.

The report 

The Working Party have made practical recommendations to ensure that necessary support is an integral feature of the digital justice system and continue to work with the reform programme to instil a user focussed approach. The report makes 19 recommendations in total – mostly directed at HMCTS.

These include:

  • Greater investment in “trusted faces” in “trusted places” i.e. services already providing digital support and internet access.
  • Considering the specific challenges of providing support to the digitally excluded, especially hard to reach cohorts – including testing Assisted Digital services in regions where the internet may be difficult to access.
  • Paying specific attention to highly digitally excluded groups, like homeless people and detainees.
  • Designing online justice services with an independent “look and feel” to reflect the constitutional independence of the courts.
  • Maximising the benefits of the “multi-channel” approach – helping people move with ease between digital access, phone assistance, face-to-face assistance, and paper.
  • Ensuring online justice services cater for the most affordable and ubiquitous mode of digital interaction: mobile technology.
  • Conducting end-to-end pilots of online justice services, learning from hearing and enforcement stages what is required at earlier stages.
  • Researching how people behave in an online environment and choices between Assisted Digital channels.
  • Collecting and making available the widest range of data possible to support research by external experts.

Speaking at the launch of Preventing digital exclusion from online justice, Lord Briggs of Westbourne, Justice of the UK Supreme Court, said that the report took a positive approach to changes like the “Online Court” while seeking to ensure that access to justice is available for everybody. He focussed on several of the Working Party’s recommendations – including the importance of: mobile technology, an independent ‘look and feel’ for online justice, the multi-channel approach, end-to-end piloting and robust academic research. Lord Briggs praised JUSTICE’s report as the first to look at Assisted Digital in detail – and, typically of JUSTICE, produced in good time to inform all future stages of the reforms.  He welcomed the Working Party’s approach of highlighting particular groups – giving their difficulties with digital separate treatment, with no assumption that the paper channel will be the default for all of the “digitally excluded”.

Amanda Finlay CBE, Chair of the Working Party, said, “Preventing digital exclusion from online justice will require a continuing programme of learning from users’ needs and experience to improve Assisted Digital support and the Online Court itself. Inclusive, user friendly design and creative thinking will make online justice better for all users. Our recommendations are deliberately practical and achievable and we hope they will be implemented.” 

Read the full report here

Read the press release here

Read the one-year update here

Read media coverage on the report from Legal Futures and New Law Journal

The Litigant in Person Network published an article about the Working Party and why JUSTICE is doing this work here on its website

If you have further inquiries about the report, please contact Alex Walters