Absolutely. We can imagine a lay person being told to follow, or being pushed towards following, the online procedure. They are not going to be told that the paper procedure or turning up is just as doable and straightforward. I will come on to this point later, but ensuring that people have access to legal advice is even more important with the introduction of digitisation and there seems to be nothing in the Bill to deal with that issue.
Sadly, in many areas of the reform programme, digitisation has frequently been imposed from the top down. Clause 4 recognises the Government’s duty to
“make support available for digitally excluded people” in so far as the Lord Chancellor feels it to be “appropriate and proportionate”. It is vital that support is not just there but properly funded and—importantly—sufficiently advertised. Even when there are mechanisms available to provide support, we worry that all too frequently they are poorly promoted. They work to show evidence of action, while providing little meaningful aid to those who need it. Since it was set up in February 2018, a helpline for those who need help to use video links in court has averaged less than one call a day. The Public and Commercial Services Union has questioned how widely HMCTS would advertise alternatives to digital justice and I share its concern.
Another point we are concerned about relates to clause 1(3)(d), which refers to the use of
“innovative methods of resolving disputes.”
Despite the probing of my counterpart in the other place, it is still unclear precisely what that means. Greater clarity on the wording would be useful. We are very concerned that the Bill does not lead to digital justice becoming an inescapable default setting across the justice system.
Access to legal aid and legal advice is very important, and it is regrettable that the Bill is pretty silent on that. The Bill should include the ability for those who go through the online procedures to at least be able to make a phone call to access legal advice. That phone call should not be a premium number or a chargeable number; it should be a free number, so that people can access proper legal advice. Many people do not have contract phones, with free mobile phone calls. A lot of people are still on pay-as-you-go, so they need a system that is free to use. It would therefore help if the Minister was able to ensure, when he responds to the debate or in Committee, that the Government deal with that point.
I emphasise that point because of my own personal experience as a practitioner. I can remember being in courts, whether civil or criminal, which were attended by unrepresented people. None of us gave legal advice as such, but lawyers and solicitors would at least provide them with some guidance, a signpost and somewhere to go. When we have online courts and people are sitting at their computers, they will not have human advice, guidance and signposting. It is therefore crucial that such people can access legal advice, even on a phone, so I ask the Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Minister to think about that.
Let me recap a few issues that really concern us, which I hope the Minister will address in his response. First, so far no rational reason has been produced as to why the committee needs to be so small. Secondly, how will he ensure that the rights of disabled people are properly represented in the committee? Thirdly, how will he ensure that there is real parliamentary oversight of potential major changes to our justice system? I would really appreciate answers to those questions.
Finally, I reiterate that fair and equal access to our justice system needs to be at the justice system’s heart. It is well known that the most stable countries in the world are those that have the best legal and judicial systems, where people feel that they will get justice in the end. Therefore, what will the Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Minister do to ensure that people are protected, that no harm comes to them and that justice is properly and fairly accessible to all those who need it?