Today’s hypothesis looks at whether the fall in the number of judgments received in January 2020 is due to changes in the court processes resulting in justice being less accessible. The unintended consequence of changes to court processes may mean that claimants do not have to ability to take court action to obtain money that is owed to them.
Since 2016, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have been pioneering an ambitious Reform Programme. With the aim to spend £1.2 billion, the proposed changes would modernise and upgrade the courts and tribunals service by allowing ‘people to manage and resolve disputes fairly and speedily’ making them ‘swifter, simpler and easier to access for everyone’.
A major example of this reform in the civil courts is the launching, in March 2018, of a digital service which allows claimants to resolve disputes of up to £10,000 online.
Every 6 months, HMCTS has provided updates on the improvements made in the various sectors of the system. The latest major update came in July 2019. In reaction to the reforms, HMCTS stated that:
- “nine out of ten members of the public who have used the [online] service say they are satisfied with the civil money claims online service, and the time to settle cases has been more than halved – from three months to just over a month”
The use of the online system may result in the reduction in the number of judgments as defendants might find it easier to fulfil the claims due streamlining of the method. However, HMCTS state in their reforms that ‘over 200 settlements have been reached online without involving a court.’ At the time of publishing this review, there had been 62,000 online claims, so it is clear only a fraction of the claims do not include court action.
At first glimpse these changes from paper-based claims to digitalised methods would suggest an increase in access to justice, as people can now quickly claim money owed through only needing an internet connection, and not a printer or other hardware. Further, as the old systems have not been removed (i.e. paper claims can still be taken out), you could assume that both types of claimants would be satisfied.
However, in November 2019, the Committee of Public Accounts presented a progress view of the transformation in HMCTS to the House of Commons. In the report, there were concerns that firstly the service were behind schedule on their reforms and secondly were failing to assess the success of reforms resulting in limiting access to justice for vulnerable people in society. They argued, that by not understanding the impacts of reform, they were ‘undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system’.
For example, if a defendant is offered a virtual hearing but does not have good levels of legal or digital literacy, they may be disadvantaged. The Committee also states that these people may be less likely to seek representation and therefore putting them at risk of making uniformed decisions.
Further, the Committee point out that the reforms have also come with the closure of 127 courts. This could have direct implications on vulnerable members of society, such as those with disabilities, on low income or living in rural areas. If physical presence is required, it might be difficult for these member of society to travel to different locations and with the closing of courts, these journeys may be made longer.
Overall, in assessing the changes in court processes, it is clear that access to justice could be affected both ways. It could give some access that was not previously available but at the same time, have the unintended consequence of limiting access for others.
Court modernisation is necessary, and implementing changes will always be a balancing act. However, you would not expect the modernisation programme to have created the sudden fall in judgments seen in January 2020. It may be a downward trend in a number of factors over the years of reform as well as in the years preceding. Therefore Hypothesis 1: Changes in Court Processes does not explain what happened to judgment levels in January 2020.
Up next, we will be testing geographical differences to see whether a particular area in the United Kingdom have seen large downturns in the numbers of judgments consumers are receiving.
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 ‘Transforming Our Justice System’ By the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/553261/joint-vision-statement.pdf
‘Transforming Courts and Tribunals: progress review’ Committee of Public Accounts. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmselect/cmpubacc/27/27.pdf