Our justice system is renowned around the world. It is the ultimate protector of the fundamental rights and freedoms we enjoy, and the principles that underpin it are enduringly important.
Yet for many people, the system can be hard to navigate and understand. It can be complicated and intimidating – and, at worst, can feel like it is built to suit those who work within it rather than the needs of those who turn to the courts to solve their problem.
This is compounded by a system of administration that has, for too long, been dependent on paper files and documents, and archaic ways of working that make it hard to do simple things simply.
Our programme of reform – led jointly by the judiciary and government - is breaking down these barriers by introducing ways of working and technology commonplace in other walks of life. Fundamentally, it is reshaping the justice system around the needs of all those who use it by simplifying and streamlining how people can access justice.
Anyone with a claim under £10,000 (say, someone who has been ripped off by a rogue builder) can now do so by answering a series of straightforward questions online, and those subject to the claim can respond and make settlement offers online too. Where both parties agree, settlement can be reached within hours or days.
The service has been used more than 70,000 times in just over 12 months and nine out of ten users say they are satisfied or very satisfied with it. Even when the case can’t be resolved online, the average time taken to settle disputes has fallen from more than three months to a little over five weeks.
It is one of a number of new, online services we have introduced over the last year to enable people to apply for a divorce or probate, appeal against welfare benefit decisions, or enter a plea for many low-level, summary and victimless offences like speeding or fare evasion.
Online pleas worry some. Yet offering people this choice alongside the traditional paper and post route has increased the number of people responding to such prosecutions from around 16 per cent to over 20 per cent. That means fewer people having cases decided without their input.
Shaping change around the needs of users is more efficient too. More than 40 per cent of completed paper forms had to be returned to divorce applicants because of errors. For online applications, we return fewer than one per cent saving time, cost and stress for everyone involved.
We are also testing different ways to hear cases that do need to go to court. One is called “continuous online resolution” where judges or tribunal panels are able ask questions or request evidence online to allow them to make decisions. We will be testing this in social security tribunals this summer.
Fully video hearings is another. Video links have been used successfully in courts for many years. But some hearings, such as preliminary hearings, might benefit from using video for all participants rather than expecting everyone to travel to one location.
Last year, we piloted video hearings in a small number of tax tribunal cases. It was welcomed by users who were able to join the hearing from their home or office. We are now piloting this in some family cases too to enable victims of domestic abuse to seek urgent injunctions without having the stress of travel and appearing in court in person.
Such approaches will only ever be suitable for some types of cases and hearings, and will always be dependent on judicial decision. They are being tested in close collaboration with the judiciary, legal professionals and users and are subject to proper evaluation and scrutiny – as is the reform programme as a whole.
Innovation is essential yet there are many things that won’t change. Physical hearings in courts and tribunals will always have a pivotal role, online services will complement not replace existing paper forms and fundamental principles of an open, fair, just and proportionate system will never be compromised.
But our processes don’t need to be as ancient as our principles. By putting people at the heart of our change, and looking afresh at how things are done, we have a unique opportunity to ensure that a system that has served us so well for so long continues to do so for decades to come.