Justice in the digital age

A bold ‘hi-tech’ vision for the future of HMCTS shouldn’t ignore that access to justice is being steadily eroded by ‘enhanced’ court fees and the radical cuts to legal aid

Every barrister will be affected in some way by the shared £1bn vision for the future of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) set out in the recent joint statement, Transforming our Justice System, issued by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals. 

Some of us have already begun to see the impact, such as in the criminal field with the rolling out of the Crown Court Digital Case System and Better Case Management. The Bar Council will respond to the two consultations issued alongside the statement: one on the proposals for its implementation and the other on delivery of a more diverse judiciary. But I would encourage all barristers to make the time to read the joint statement.

The way we live our lives continues to change rapidly as a result of the ongoing ‘tech’ revolution. It has been said that the pace of change over the next 18 months will be equivalent to the change we have experienced over the last 20 years. As barristers we must ensure that we are prepared. Whether as individuals we like these changes or not, we cannot afford to ignore them. During the summer, as part of the Canadian Bar’s Legal Conference, I had the opportunity to see pitches from a number of new legal start-ups in Canada, ranging from sophisticated legal research tools, to prediction software based on basic case details, to software which aimed to alert clients to risky clauses in contracts during the bidding phase and had the ability to learn the more the client used it. They will inevitably change the legal market, and how we as legal professionals practise. In some cases such companies will assist us, and in others, they may well compete with traditional lawyers.

Encouragingly, a study by Oxford University in 2014 concluded that solicitors, barristers and judges only had a 3.5% chance of being replaced by automation. But the changes will nonetheless be substantial, as evidenced by the joint statement.

The Government and HMCTS need to move forward into the 21st century. The plans are ambitious and bold. Quite aside from the Government’s historic bad luck with large IT projects, the challenges are several: implementation – how the broad vision of a justice system for the future becomes a reality; continued investment – ensuring that the necessary input of finance, time and people is available, and continues to be available going forward; and preservation – ensuring that while embracing innovation and change we do not inadvertently undermine the fundamentals of what has made our justice system among the best in the world.

A justice system that is just, proportionate and accessible and that provides ‘justice for everyone’ are the stated aims of Transforming our Justice System. I doubt any of us would disagree with these aims. But it is concerning that there seems to be little recognition in Government that access to courts and tribunals has been eroded in recent years by ‘enhanced’ and ‘increased’ court fees, and by radical cuts to legal aid in family and social welfare cases.

The spending commitment of about £1bn is encouraging and necessary. We will work with the judiciary, HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice in the implementation of these plans. But we will also continue to raise concerns, where we have them, about the proposals, and to lobby on issues, such as legal aid and court fees, which directly impact on access to justice. We will continue to press the case for a full post-legislative review of LASPO. The impact of the Coalition Government’s cost-cutting legislation, on which the Commons’ Justice Committee rightly focused their concerns, needs to be assessed soon, to avoid repeating past errors.

We will be debating these issues at this year’s annual Bar and Young Bar Conference on Saturday 15 October: ‘Raising the Bar: Innovation and global opportunity for a forward thinking profession’. If you can attend, you should.

Contributor Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, Chairman of the Bar

WORKING ON YOUR BEHALF

Here’s a glimpse of just some of the Bar Council’s work in August 2016:

  1. The Chairman of the Bar warned readers of the Financial Times, The Times, Mail on Sunday and several other media outlets that new figures from the Registry Trust showed increased court fees were pricing people out of court.
  2. A new LinkedIn group specifically for employed barristers was launched by the Bar Council.
  3. Lord Neuberger announced as speaker for the Bar Council’s 16th Annual Law Reform Lecture (21 November): ‘The Supreme Court 7 years on: lessons learnt’.
  4. Chairman-Elect of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC, met with a delegation from Vietnam to discuss legal aid, while the Chairman met with Treasury Solicitor, Jonathan Jones, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Richard Heaton CB, to discuss Brexit.
  5. Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee, Louisa Nye, guest blogged for Solicitors Journal on the value the young Bar provides.
  6. Statistics from the Bar Council’s Direct Access Portal revealed that Brexit had prompted businesses and individuals to turn to barristers for help on legal issues, such as EU and employment law.
  7. The Bar Council and Bar Human Rights Committee issued a joint statement voicing concern over the abduction of Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, a lawyer in Bangladesh.
  8. A new Bar Council Recruitment Portal was launched for chambers.
  9. The attack on lawyers at a hospital in Quetta killing 70 people was condemned by the Chairman of the Bar.
  10. Representing the Bar at the American Bar Association conference in San Francisco and Canadian Bar Association Legal Conference in Ottawa, the Chairman of the Bar participated in Bar leader events on Brexit and regulation of legal services.
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