Duty to make support available for digitally excluded people

Part of Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 9:45 am, 23rd July 2019

Thank you, Sir Gary.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made a more important point in his concern that we should not seek to fetter the committee. It might help if we take a step back and think about what the Bill seeks, which to establish a committee that, in and of itself, will make a range of rules around how the court functions, the processes within the court and what the judge can and cannot do in a wide range of circumstances, which neither the hon. Gentleman nor I, nor any other member of the Committee, can predict.

Not every single legal process within a courtroom, or the entire judicial system, can be predicted. It is not sensible to try to cram as much as possible into the Bill so as to pre-empt the ability of the rule committee to decide what is appropriate for the various range of online procedures that we will roll out in years to come. It is not sensible to try to capture in the Bill the technology of 2019 in the hope that that lasts above and beyond wherever technology might take us.

I agree with the spirit of the amendment, but I believe we made changes to the Bill in the other place that make the amendment unnecessary. I will try to provide assurance—it may be a vain hope, but let me try. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service has committed to providing a comprehensive package of assisted digital support through a number of different means, which includes telephone support. We have a network of trained call handlers dealing with telephone queries and helping to signpost people to relevant information. Those handlers assist with the completion of online forms, answer general queries and identify circumstances in which a person might benefit from more focused face-to-face support.

The use of webchat is also being trialled for those purposes, and we are testing screen-sharing software so that support staff can see the screen of callers to help point and highlight, and provide support in turn. Like all our new services, assisted digital support has been piloted, tested and improved on the basis of continuous user feedback, to ensure that it is targeted at those who need it most.

Let me also clarify that clause 4 is a legally binding duty on the Lord Chancellor to arrange for the provision of appropriate and proportionate support to those litigants who may be digitally excluded. As I have explained, telephone support is already a key component of meeting that obligation. HMCTS already provides a telephone helpline for litigants who require help, and there are no plans to remove that service.

Further, the hon. Lady clarified that, from her perspective, any helpline must be free for use. I agree that that is important, and can confirm that HMCTS does not charge for the telephone service, although admittedly some mobile networks might levy a call charge. Consequently, we are working on approaches to minimise those costs where they are an issue. We already call people back when requested and are exploring the introduction of an automated message to advise people as early as possible in their call of that option.

It is my view that the combination of support that the Government are providing to litigants with the legal duty in clause 4 means that the amendment is unnecessary, and I urge its withdrawal.