Move to online courts must take into account the needs of poorest citizens, warn judges

updated on 15 May 2018

The government should not abandon access to physical courts in its drive to digitise the justice system because of the impact it would have on the poorest in society, leading judges and academics have warned.

The government has launched a £1 billion programme to reform the courts system by moving courts online and looking at other forms of web-based dispute resolution. The Civil Justice Service (CJC) supports the reforms in principle, but last week insisted that certain types of case will still require parties to physically attend court. As The Law Gazette reports, the chair of the CJC and master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, said that physical court access must remain available in cases where people face the loss of their home or bankruptcy, while certain types of family case, such as disputes over child custody, also require parties to attend court in person.

Responding to a consultation, the CJC said that people who continue to require physical access to courts will be in the bottom 25-30% of the population in terms of income. Vulnerable people who need access to the justice system but lack IT skills would also be adversely affected if the vast majority of courts close their doors. Court buildings have been sold off in great numbers by the government in recent years.

The CJC said: “The court of the future aspirations are laudable and welcome, but there needs to be an acceptance that some of those aspirations will be medium- and long-term goals, as the existing estate is gradually improved, modernised or replaced.”