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Access to Justice: Court Digitisation Programme

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2019

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on access to justice of the court digitisation programme. (912604)

Digitisation is designed to improve access to justice and, of course, efficiency in the court system. Last year, 150,000 people accessed court services online. To date, no fewer than 63,491 people have entered uncontested divorce proceedings online. The take-up rate is now 62% and growing. Some 94,975 people have issued or responded to civil money claims to date, and they report an 88% satisfaction rating. No fewer than 317,206 minor pleas have been entered since 2014, and if the House is wondering, 85% of those pleas were guilty and 15% were not guilty.

From next April, the vast majority of personal injury claims will have to be dealt with online, without the benefit of legal advice. Even the Association of British Insurers—the major advocate and beneficiary of that policy—does not think the Government will be ready. It is urging the Government to drop the proposed increase in the small claims limit for employers and public liability and concentrate on road traffic claims. As the Government often follow the ABI’s advice, will they on this occasion?

The House has been in the process of legislating in this area for some time. The Prisons and Courts Bill fell at the 2017 election. We finally legislated in the Civil Liability Act 2018, which is due to be implemented along with the £5,000 limit for the small claims track in April next year, and that remains the Government’s intention.

In Suffolk, nearly half of all victims of domestic abuse or sexual offences are unwilling to proceed with prosecutions. Clause 75 of the Domestic Abuse Bill will help to improve the situation, but will the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to root-and-branch reform to remove the culture of confrontation, fear and intimidation in the courts and tribunals system?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, which was touched on by Members under Question 3. It is vital that we help victims of these terrible crimes to pursue the case right through the court system, rather than dropping it after reporting the crime, and there is a lot more to do there. The provisions in the Domestic Abuse Bill, introduced for its Second Reading last week, will help that, as will the increased funding to support victims of these terrible crimes, to which I referred earlier.

The Government have undertaken an unprecedented sale of courts, which has made giving evidence in court far more difficult for the many victims of crime who now have to travel much further to have their day in court. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) said, the fact is that victims of sexual and other physical abuse are already reluctant to come to court, and this plays into that even more. Will the Minister agree to an independent assessment of the impact of these court closures and commit to no further closures unless it can be proved that they are not having a detrimental impact on access to justice?

Of course, access-to-justice considerations are extremely important. Before any court is earmarked for closure, there is an extremely thorough consultation process, and if any courts are due to close in the future, a similarly thorough consultation process will be gone through. I would point out that in the cohort of courts consulted on in 2015 that were subsequently closed, on average their utilisation rates were about one third. We need to balance a reasonable approach to the court estate with the access-to-justice considerations that the hon. Lady quite rightly raises.