01 May 2019
Closing courts before digitisation is “putting cart before the horse”, argues CILEx
Closing courts across the country with years to go until the digitisation programme is finished or its impact is understood is evidence of the government putting justice in danger, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) has said.
CILEx said it was an example of how the ambitious court modernisation being pursued by HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS) was not a panacea for the deficiencies caused by persistent underfunding of the justice system.
Responding to the justice select committee’s call for evidence on the access to justice impacts of court and tribunal reforms, CILEx said the justice system was “still in an age of austerity”, with growing advice deserts, cuts to legal aid and the Crown Prosecution Service, and the rise of unrepresented parties.
CILEx said the government’s £1bn programme to modernise courts and tribunals – the end date for which has just been extended by a year to 2023 – must be put to good use, improving the administration of justice rather than simply justifying further cuts to the existing system.
The response argues that the roll-out of the reforms to date has “put the cart before the horse, with irreversible court closures and reported plans for job cuts before the impact of the reforms can be accurately predicted”.
It said: “We are still to see evidence that digitisation efforts will result in reduced demand on physical space, and it is disconcerting to have court closures justified on low utilisation rates when the definition of ‘use’ has been viewed through the narrow lens of courtroom hearings alone.”
CILEx said that, in practice, the court estate has varied uses, and in effect provides ‘justice hubs’ in local communities; pre- and post-hearing meetings are held there, and people receive information and access to wider community services, as well as crucially being a venue for discussion on out-of-court settlements which reduce the strain on parties and the need for unnecessary litigation.
“Where existing infrastructure and services have ceased, it is essential that replacements are implemented ahead of time to mitigate any access to justice impacts. CILEx is not convinced that this has always been the case and is concerned by the knock-on impacts that this could have on the efficiency of our court system.”
CILEx warned too against a “one size fits all” approach to modernisation, saying it is mindful that an over-reliance on digitisation and the blanket adoption of tech-based solutions would not be appropriate in all types of case, particularly where vulnerable people are involved.
Whilst recognising that digital reforms and wider modernisation efforts may have a positive impact on access to justice, CILEx states that this will largely be context-specific and that careful evaluation should be made of the areas and processes where fully-fledged tech-based systems would be inappropriate or unhelpful.
CILEx President Phillip Sherwood says: “We are currently in a position where access to justice is being threatened by years of swingeing cuts. Against this backdrop, it is vital that technology is not seen as the only means to shore up a crumbling and underfunded court system.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernise the courts system, and if it is to be successful HMCTS must acknowledge the importance of alleviating the pressures felt by hard-working court staff, the need to maintain sufficient working courts and the fact that technological solutions will not be appropriate in all circumstances.
“We hope HMCTS will use the additional time it now has to engage meaningfully with the professionals keeping the system afloat to understand the challenges involved and to ensure the project improves rather than hinders access to justice.”
For further information, please contact:
Kerry Jack, Black Letter Communications on 07525 756 599 or email:
Louise Eckersley, Black Letter Communications on 0203 567 1208 or email:
Notes to Editors:
The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) is one of the three main professional bodies covering the legal profession in England and Wales. The 20,000-strong membership is made up of Chartered Legal Executives, paralegals and other legal professionals.
CILEx members are regulated through an independent body, CILEx Regulation. It is the only regulator covering paralegals.
CILEx provides training, with qualifications open to those holding GCSEs, A levels or a degree. Over 100,000 students have chosen CILEx over the last 25 years, with the majority studying whilst in full or part-time employment.
CILEx provides a non-graduate route to qualification as a lawyer, although graduates are also welcomed and the Graduate Fast-track Diploma offers a more affordable and viable alternative to the LPC.
Those who complete the full CILEx qualification are known as Chartered Legal Executives. They can become partners in law firms, coroners, judges or advocates in open court.
The membership is diverse – 75% of members are women and 14% are from a BAME background.