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Do people prefer doing justice online?

Penelope Gibbs
24 Mar 2019

Do people want to do justice online? The government says they do and, in some circumstances, I’m sure they are right – a simple divorce, or speeding fine is easier to do online if you have a smartphone and wi-fi. Those with packaged accounts won’t pay much either. But most defendants and plaintiffs are poorer than the average person and probably less able to negotiate a legal case online.

Which is why its a pity that it could cost people a lot of money to call the courts service and why its even sadder that so few plaintiffs/defendants seem to access face to face help.  All calls about court cases are being centralised into a few call centres. These centres will respond to people asking about their local court cases and to those with queries about an online form.  A colleague from Unlock tipped me off that HMCTS were charging for phone calls – not charging a premium rate but a standard rate. When I looked into it I was shocked to understand how much calls could cost.

The poorer you are, the more you tend to pay for phone calls. Without a credit rating people are forced to use pay as you go phones – calls can cost up to 55p per minute. So you can imagine that someone with a complicated query about their social security appeal or about a criminal charge for not paying a TV licence fee might end of spending £10 or more on a phone call. This is a lot of money to someone on benefits. Which is why there was a successful campaign to make it free for anyone to make a call about Universal Credit.

I’m not clear if HMCTS knew about that campaign, but they are not now offering to make calls about court cases free. They told the Times that because lots of people had used the existing standard rate phone number, they can’t have been deterred by the cost. But that doesn’t make sense. People have little choice as to whether to call about a court case, in addition how does HMCTS know how many have not called, or curtailed their call, because of the costs?

Many court hearings are going online by default. There is a face to face service designed to help plaintiffs and defendants who don’t have access to the internet, or don’t know how to use it. But this “assisted digital” service is only offered to those who phone and are assessed as needing such face to face help – help to take part in the case rather than legal advice. The government estimated that at least a thousand people would use this service in the first year, but just fourteen people have done so. Quite why the estimates were so wrong is not clear. The government may say its because people don’t need the face to face help. But that is unlikely, as anyone who has watched litigants in person or unrepresented defendants will attest. The government can’t explain why the numbers are so low. Maybe they are trying to find out.

Another FOI by Transform Justice uncovered the data behind some research commissioned by HMCTS on how people feel about their court experience. This relates to the government’s drive to get court hearings online and queries on the phone, rather than at the courthouse itself. According to this research, the key driver to court satisfaction is being listened to. The research probed court users’ experiences of dealing with the courts service across jurisdictions and in different contexts – in the physical court room, online and on the phone. There are interesting differences between users as Emily Dugan of Buzzfeed pointed out

“While 40% of court users strongly agreed they had been listened to, just 27% of those whose cases had been dealt with outside a physical courtroom felt that way. The gap was the same for how open and accessible they felt the process was, and how able they were to participate and take part with confidence. There was also a contrast in what people felt they had achieved. While 39% of those whose cases were dealt with in court strongly agreed that they could do what they needed to do, for those not in court, the proportion was just 31%”.

In the end technology can only do so much. It looks as though people may prefer to deal with court cases in a traditional court room. This makes it even more important that the government makes phone calls to HMCTS free, and supports people to get face to face help.