Access to justice undermined due to lacklustre online court services

New research published by the Law Society of England and Wales has found that the government’s digitisation of the court system is adding to the delays plaguing the civil court system and undermining people’s access to justice when they need it most.

A survey of solicitors who have used the damages claims, public family law and probate portals has uncovered the extent of technical issues with the system and the impact of these on the delivery of justice.*

“For seven years, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been modernising the justice system to make it more straightforward, accessible and efficient. Its court reform programme is designed to improve courts and tribunals for court users,” said Law Society president Nick Emmerson.

“It has had many successes in this time, such as the digital uptake of all probate applications increasing to 80% by December 2022 and more than 70% of all courtrooms able to allow parties to join hearings remotely.

“However, it is important for HMCTS to learn from the problems in its systems, as well as its successes.

“Our findings show that more than half of solicitors surveyed do not believe the portals are efficient and effective in delivering justice.

“We know that modernisation is a work in progress, but this is having a real impact on clients, especially as these portals are often used at an already challenging and difficult time, such as managing the estate of a deceased loved one, handling a child protection matter or getting help with an accident that wasn’t their fault.

“The increased delays and associated uncertainty these portals have created are causing additional stress.”

Three in five (62%) respondents reported delays in court proceedings as a result of the portals, which had emotionally impacted their clients. A third (34%) reported increased costs have been passed on to clients.

Across the three portals contributing factors to the delays included timeliness, communication and technical issues along with the lack of HMCTS staff resource to deal with problems.

Probate (75%), family public law (66%) and damages claims (46%) portal users reported delays in court proceedings and the administration of justice.** The impact on clients was evident. More than half (54%) of probate users said the online process is taking longer than the paper-based system, three in 10 (29%) experienced poor response times and limited staff knowledge, with nearly one in five (18%) stating this meant there were delays in issuing grants.

Half (50%) of damages claims users reported that delays were impacting on clients and a quarter (24%) said the process was burdensome.

Seven in 10 (70%) users of the family public law portal reported technical errors and frequent breakdowns and four in five (80%) reported lack of timeliness of technical support.

Nick Emmerson added: “Some of these issues have come about because there simply wasn’t sufficient engagement with the solicitor profession, the advice sector and members of the public when these systems were being designed.

“Well designed and thoroughly tested online systems have the potential to increase access, drive efficiency and streamline case management.

“An efficient court system ensures streamlined case management, fair and transparent proceedings and ultimately, timely access to justice.

“We urge government to take our proposals on board as it continues its court reform programme.”

The Law Society’s recommendations include:

  • improved and consistent communication for those using online systems to help ease the backlogs by reducing demand on the court service
  • a user-led design and development process involving the public, legal professionals and the advice sector
  • a central resource containing information and guidance for users of each online court system
  • software to improve communication between online court systems and solicitors’ case management systems
  • robust data collection and transparency will aid continuous improvement of current and future online court systems

Notes to editors

Read our Online court services: Delivering a more efficient digital justice system report

Read about the HMCTS reform programme

Between June and July 2023 we surveyed our members on their experiences of online court processes to help us understand how these are impacting solicitors, their clients and the wider civil justice system. This focused on the integration of online services, and on the pace and effectiveness of changes made over the past 12 months.

* 722 solicitors provided responses across three surveys focusing on HMCTS’ online services including the damages claims portal, the family public law portal and the probate portal.

** Respondents’ thoughts on the online portals included:

  • Probate: “We have gone from a system that cost £45 and took two weeks to a system that costs £273 and takes 16 weeks! How is this progress?”
  • Family public law: “It has caused problems for the business leaving clients wondering if the problems are due to our ability to use the portal. As usual the government wants to save money and leave the users with the problem of working with new technology before it is set up.”
  • Damages claims: “More training needs to be provided to staff, more guidance needs to be provided for users and a general better understanding of what is expected to be provided at these early stages would be better being provided before the product is expanded.”

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | 020 8049 3928

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