Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘digital courts

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (2) Virtual hearings and on-line courts

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Almost exactly a year ago (May 2 2019) I noted in this blog the introduction of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill. This was to be an important staging post in the process of reforming Courts and Tribunals, to enable more hearings and other proceedings to be on-line. The Bill would have provided for the creation of a new Procedure Committee to deal with how such hearings and other proceedings should take place. The Bill collapsed when the General Election held in the last autumn of 2019 was announced.

Nevertheless, far from derailing the Government’s reform plans, the Covid 19 pandemic has arguably done more to speed up the progress towards the development of new online courts than might have been imagined. Although the Online Procedure Bill has not, to date, been introduced, the Coronavirus Act 2020 has effectively stepped in. For as long as the Act is in force (the legislation is time-limited to 2 years), it provides for the transformation of ways in which courts and tribunals are to be run. It does this by disapplying or amending existing legislation regulating a large number of aspects of public policy.

Sections 53 to 57 and Schedules 23 – 27 of the Coronavirus Act deal with the use of video and audio technology in Courts and Tribunals. I do not propose to go through these provisions in detail. But it worth setting out the policy objectives of these provisions. I have adapted these from the Explanatory Notes to the Act:

1. [Although] the courts currently have various statutory and inherent powers which enable them to make use of technology. The Act amends existing legislation so as to enable the use of technology either in video/audio-enabled hearings in which one or more participants appear before the court using a live video or audio link, or by a wholly video/audio hearing where there is no physical courtroom and all participants take part in the hearing using telephone or video conferencing facilities.

2. Provisions are also made within the Act to enable the public to see and hear proceedings which are held fully by video link or fully by audio link. This enables criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals to make directions to live stream a hearing which is taking place in this manner.

3. There are existing restrictions on photography and sound recording in physical courts. (Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 provides prohibitions on photography in courts. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 prohibits the making of unauthorised sound recordings.) These offences were created to protect participants in court proceedings, but long before the concept of a virtual hearing was thought possible. Provisions in the Act therefore create similar offences to protect participants and prohibit recording or transmitting live-streamed proceedings, photography and sound recordings in the context of virtual hearings and live-links.

4. The Act provides for restrictions to be imposed on individuals who are potentially infectious and that the decision to impose such restrictions can be appealed to magistrates’ court. The Act therefore ensures that such hearings should be conducted fully by video link, unless the court directs otherwise, given the person appealing the decision would be subject to restrictions, and there is the risk of passing on the infection if they were to travel to court.

Although these specific provisions will, I hope, have a limited shelf life, they are having the effect that, like it or not, judges, legal practitioners and other court and tribunal users are being forced to use these new technologies.

There have been sporadic reports in the professional legal press and elsewhere that, actually, many really like the new ways of doing business and are surprised how well they work. Others, particularly where the technology does not work as it should, are less enthusiastic.

But the champions of reform among the judiciary and policymakers clearly see these currently emergency procedures as a really valuable practical testbed and the precursor to significantly even more substantial reform in the years ahead.

The Act can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/contents/enacted

A useful report on these matters from Susan Acland-Hood, who is leading the Courts and Tribunals reform programme, was published on 30 April 2020 and is available at https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2020/04/30/using-remote-hearings-to-maintain-justice-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

See international developments at the website: https://remotecourts.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preventing digital exclusion

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A great deal of effort is currently being put into finding ways of using IT to deliver legal services, whether in the form of: providing legal advice and assistance to those who need it;  conducting various types of legal activity/process on-line; dealing with disputes online.

In general, the modernisation of the practice and procedure of the law through IT is to be welcomed. At the same time, there are concerns that some of the most vulnerable in society may be excluded from this brave new world. They may not have easy access to computers, or the ability to use them. In rightly encouraging digital solutions, at the same time policy makers need to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

In a recent policy paper, the human Rights group JUSTICE has drawn attention to the importance of ensuring that people are not excluded from the rapidly developing digital legal world.

In their report Preventing digital exclusion from online justice (published in June 2018), they analysed the potential issues that those engaged in the reform of legal procedures need to bear in mind.

The report makes a number of recommendations, directed primarily at HM Courts and Tribunals Service. They 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. (Assisted Digital envisages a flexible mix of telephone, webchat, face-to-face, and paper-based support services. HMCTS is commissioning a programme of work to evaluate what types of support and in what combinations works best.)
  • 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.

Internationally, there is a great deal of experiment going on with different forms of communicating advice and assistance. There are being kept under review by Professor Roger Smith who, with funding from the Legal Education Foundation, provides – among other things – an annual review of development in the use of IT to increase access to justice. He also writes a blog which looks in mor detail at specific initiatives relating to trying to improve access to justice – not just through the use of new technologies but also new ways of funding them such as crowd funding.

For those interested in how the application of new technologies might change ways in which the delivery of legal services are undertaken, this is an outstanding resource – full of links to detailed initiatives. At the same time, the need for realism in potential impacts is also stressed. It is important not always to believe the hype surrounding new applications.

The JUSTICE report is at https://justice.org.uk/new-justice-report-on-preventing-digital-exclusion/.

The Annual Reviews of digital delivery of legal services can be found at https://www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org/digital/digital-report.

Roger Smith’s blog on developments in Law, technology and Access to Justice is at https://law-tech-a2j.org/publications/

Also relevant is the report, published in July 2018, from the Centre for Justice Innovation, which also looks at public attitudes towards the greater use of IT in the justice system.

See http://justiceinnovation.org/portfolio/just-technology-emergent-technologies-justice-system-public-thinks/