November 2, 2023
In an era where technology promises efficiency, the UK’s justice system embarked on a digitisation journey. However, the transformation has hit significant snags. Solicitors reveal that the shift, rather than smoothing, has clogged the wheels of justice, causing delays and distress among those seeking legal redress.

The UK’s Justice System Embraces Digitisation

The UK’s journey towards digitising its justice system marked a visionary stride, adapting centuries-old legal mechanisms to the digital era’s exigencies. The genesis can be traced back to the early 2000s, with incremental digital initiatives aiming to modernise various judiciary facets. However, a significant leap occurred in 2016 when the government announced the ambitious £1bn HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Reform Programme. This comprehensive strategy promised a sweeping transformation, leveraging technology to enhance efficiency, reduce legal costs, and make the judiciary more accessible to the public. Initial projects under this initiative saw the introduction of online platforms for minor claims, a digital route for divorce applications and virtual court hearings.

These pioneering steps were grounded in the belief that technology could democratise access to justice, removing physical and procedural barriers. The momentum surged amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, as social distancing necessitated a rapid shift to virtual hearings and digital documentation, accelerating the digitisation pace beyond initial expectations. Here are several key initiatives that highlight the UK’s journey towards digitising its justice system:

  • Online Court Platforms: Implementation of online platforms where certain types of cases can be handled, such as civil money claims, probate applications, and minor criminal cases. These systems are designed to simplify the filing process and facilitate remote case management, allowing proceedings to move forward without physical court attendance.
  • The Crown Court Digital Case System: Adoption of digital systems for criminal cases, enabling digital case files that streamline the sharing of documents between parties (police, prosecution, defence, and judges). This system aims to reduce paperwork, minimise the loss of documents, and speed up proceedings.
  • Remote Hearings: Expansion of video conferencing technology for use in court hearings, allowing participants to join proceedings remotely. This was especially utilised during the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain social distancing and has continued as a practice to save time and reduce the need for travel. HMCTS now plans to transition to a new video hearings service by March 2024. But difficulties with the remote hearings approach persist.
  • E-filing in Civil and Family Courts: Introduction of electronic filing systems in civil and family courts, making it easier and faster for lawyers and individuals to submit documents and forms. This initiative reduces administrative burdens and accelerates the processing of cases.
  • Online Payment Systems: Development of online platforms for the payment of court fees, fines, and other related charges. These digital payment systems offer more convenience and faster processing times for individuals and businesses.
  • Digital Evidence Presentation: Incorporation of digital tools in courtrooms for the presentation of evidence, including digital screens and other technology for showcasing electronic evidence. This modern approach allows for clearer, more dynamic presentation of information and streamlined court proceedings.

However, this journey has not been without its share of turbulence. The aspiration to marry technology with judicial processes brought to light the intricate challenges of such a formidable transformation.

Unveiling Digital Setbacks

Responses from a sweeping survey of legal practitioners carried out by the Law Society have laid bare the extent of the digitisation pitfalls. The statistics are unsettling: a majority have encountered delays, increased costs, and a cumbersome transition from paper to digital, directly affecting their clients’ pursuit of justice.

  • The Human Cost of Technological Delays

Beyond the percentages and user reports lies a harsh reality: clients are suffering. Amidst personal tribulations, such as bereavement or legal battles, they are ensnared in system-induced delays, exacerbating their emotional and financial strain.The causes of these setbacks are not superficial glitches but are deeply entrenched in the system’s digital transformation strategy. They range from technical issues to staff shortages, and crucially, a lack of robust mechanisms for feedback and adaptability within the HMCTS. Moreover, processes that include vulnerable individuals or witnesses would probably be most effectively conducted face-to-face.

  • Evaluating the Sector-Wide Impact

The digitisation woes are not confined to one area of law; they cut across various portals. From probate to family law, practitioners face troubling inefficiencies. The shared experiences across these sectors underline a systemic pattern, calling for an urgent re-evaluation of the digitisation approach.


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Striving For A User-Centric Approach

The journey so far reflects a disconnect, suggesting that the initial system design overlooked essential feedback from the legal community and the public. The solution, as Law Society president Nick Emmerson pointed out, pivots on realigning the digitisation process with the users’ needs. Let’s explore what this could look like:

Strategy 1: Implementing User Feedback Loops

One fundamental strategy is incorporating structured feedback loops into every digital tool or platform used within the justice system. The essence of this approach is continuous improvement based on user experience. For instance, after introducing online plea systems in traffic offence cases, a persistent issue might be the difficulty in navigating procedural nuances. If solicitors, defendants, or even judiciary staff could provide feedback directly through the platform, developers could make real-time adjustments.

This strategy echoes the successful model used in the NHS’s digital transformation, where patient and practitioner feedback on digital health solutions directly inform system enhancements. For the justice system, periodic surveys, user-testing groups comprising members of the public and legal practitioners, and feedback tools embedded within digital platforms could be employed. By valuing user input, the system evolves in line with the users’ needs, fostering satisfaction and trust.

Strategy 2: Personalisation of Digital Services

Customisation and personalisation of digital services form another crucial strategy. Recognising that one size does not fit all, especially in legal proceedings, digital platforms should accommodate varying needs. For example, considering the diversity in technological fluency, online court platforms can incorporate interactive guides or virtual assistants to navigate users through processes, akin to support systems found in consumer-centric service industries.

Furthermore, vulnerable groups or individuals with special needs require consideration. Inspired by educational platforms’ success, which adapt to different learning needs and paces, court digital services could integrate adaptive interfaces. These interfaces could change based on user interaction, offering more detailed explanations or support for those who need it, ensuring comprehensibility and ease of use for everyone, irrespective of age, education, or familiarity with technology.

Strategy 3: Enhancing Technological Support and Accessibility

A crucial aspect of user-centric digital transformation involves bolstering support systems and accessibility. People often need help during digital interactions, and the lack of support can lead to frustration and mistakes. Drawing from models in international customer service, a 24/7 helpdesk should be established for users of digital judicial services. This helpdesk would assist with technical issues and procedural inquiries, guiding users through different stages of their digital experience.

In terms of accessibility, there should be options for different languages and for those with disabilities, ensuring inclusivity. For instance, text-to-speech features for the visually impaired, inspired by platforms like the “Be My Eyes” app, and sign language interpreters for the deaf through video calls, as done in various customer service platforms, could be integrated.

Key Takeaways

The current state of the court’s digital systems is a stark reminder that technology alone isn’t a panacea. As the justice system navigates its digital future, it must reaffirm its commitment to its foundational tenets: equity, accessibility, and promptness in delivering justice. This commitment necessitates a recalibration of strategies, ensuring they don’t just aim for digital sophistication but also resonate with the very essence of justice – human empathy.

The revelations from the legal community are not merely feedback; they are a mandate for change, urging a synthesis of technology with humanity. The goal ahead is clear: a digital court system where justice is not only served but is timely, accessible, and above all, humane.

Commercial Awareness Questions

Here’s our round-up of commercial awareness questions to challenge you to think about the wider implications of court system digitisation.

  • What are the key challenges and setbacks encountered during the transition to a digital court system, and how do they affect access to justice?
  • What strategies can be employed to ensure a user-centric approach in the digital transformation of the justice system?
  • What support systems and accessibility measures should be in place to ensure that the digital court system is inclusive and easy to use for all individuals?
  • What role does technology play in reducing legal costs, enhancing efficiency, and increasing accessibility to the legal system?


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