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Courts Digitisation Programme

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on access to justice of the courts digitisation programme. (911797)

Enhancing access to justice is at the heart of our £1 billion court reform programme. Our new online district services provide an easily accessible, intuitive route for people to bring cases to court. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is testing, learning and inducting online services, based on feedback from the people who use them. More than 150,000 people used our services in 2018 and public feedback has been extremely positive.

Unfortunately, this Government are developing a track record of using digital technology not to improve services and empower people, but to cut costs and exclude people, so will the Minister commit to me now that he will ensure that the digitally excluded, especially the homeless, detainees and prisoners, have special access to support services; that access to legal aid will be clearly signposted online for the digital courts; and that the feedback and performance data—showing who is using these services, where and when—is publicly shared, so that we can measure whether the programme really is a success?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I am intuitively sympathetic to all the points that she makes. I am very clear that there should always remain a telephone service, a paper-based service for those who need it, and the appropriate signposting. Inclusive justice is very important and we should never innovate merely because we can. We do not use new technologies merely because we can, but because they give a better outcome for the people who use our justice system.

When it comes to the digitisation of the probate service, the Minister should be aware that constituents are still coming to me, reporting delays of up to 10 or 12 weeks before they receive probate. They are having to negotiate automated email replies and phone lines that are too busy to handle calls. What can he say today to give relief to my constituents and others who are affected, following the death of a loved one?

My right hon. Friend has cleverly anticipated Question 15. I have heard from Members across the House the deep frustration they feel regarding the current issues in the probate system. Delays had reached as long as eight weeks last month. We have put in place a number of measures to try to reduce the overall waiting time. It is now back down to roughly six to seven weeks, but that is still not good enough. We are now clearing the number of outstanding cases by about 1,000 a day, and I hope that the backlog can be cleared in around two to three months.

Is not the truth that what is happening at the moment is a restriction on access to justice, because almost half the courts in the country have been closed? Will the Minister follow what the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges has said, and put a moratorium on court closures until the digitisation programme—£200 million over budget, spending £70 million on consultants—is seen to work?

I very much hear what the hon. Gentleman is telling me. He will recall a debate that we had in this Chamber a couple of weeks ago on that point. We have no plans to close any further courts at the moment, but he will recognise that there is a need to make sure that our court estate is used appropriately, and he will recognise that where court buildings are not used, or indeed are used for less than half the time for which they could be available, we have to look at making sure that what we do in our courts best meets the needs of our estate and of the people using our courts system.

Last year, the Government made a huge fanfare about their female offenders strategy but announced only £5 million for it. Recently, legal aid was increased by £8 million, but that pales into insignificance compared with £67 million spent on consultants to provide cuts to our courts. Instead of throwing money at the consultants, surely there should be a proper debate in this House on the Government’s disastrous court closure programme.

When I speak to most sensible people across the entire justice system, there is a recognition that our justice system has to modernise. If we do not transform or modernise the system, the service will become increasingly unsustainable and will deliver a progressively worse service for the people for whom I know the hon. Lady wants to get the best outcomes possible—I do too. If we do not modernise, our district system will not be able to maintain that level of service.