Duty to make support available for digitally excluded people

Part of Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:25 am, 23rd July 2019

Essentially, amendment 2 is designed to protect people who are normally digitally excluded. The clause refers to a “proportionate” level of support, which we believe should include, but not be limited to, a free helpline. As I said earlier, there are people who do not have internet facilities in their home, have no access to the internet or cannot use computers—people have different challenges.

The helpline should be free because the very same people who are excluded from the internet also tend to be those who are financially in the worst position. Quite often, the helpline numbers for Government and other bodies or public officials may charge 3p, 4p, 5p or 10p a minute, which amounts to a lot of money for someone on a very limited income who has to spend half an hour or 40 minutes on the telephone. We therefore ask for a free telephone helpline for those people, so that they can make calls and get the information they need. We hope it will assist them, but at least it will not cost them.

I do not know whether other hon. Members have the same experience, but in my constituency there are many people who do not have a contract phone. They are often on pay-as-you-go, because it costs the least, and they try as far as possible not to use up too much credit. Not everybody has a contract phone that gets them free calls to certain numbers, and even for people who have one, many numbers are not free. That is why we are asking for a free helpline; it would probably not cost the Ministry of Justice that much more, but it would ensure that people who are digitally excluded can access free legal advice and assistance without having to pay either for the billing costs or for having someone help them.

There is another challenge with online procedures and things being done outside the courtroom. From my experience as a practitioner before becoming a Member of Parliament, often people would attend who were not legally represented, whether in civil or criminal court. Those people were either not able to get legal aid or were unaware of whether they could get it. The solicitors and barristers in the courtroom would offer them friendly legal advice to signpost them in the right direction when it was obvious that a person may have a defence. They try to guide them—they are not giving them formal legal advice, but they are able to assist.

The off-the-record general advice and assistance that lawyers provide people in the civil and criminal courts—not because they are their clients or anything, but to assist—will essentially go away when there is more and more reliance on online. Therefore, it becomes even more important that people who are digitally excluded or are in financial difficulties can access advice and support, because they will not have the advice, assistance, help, or friendly signposting that they can normally get in the courtroom. That is why I have tabled the amendment.