In the legal sphere, technological reform of the judiciary has prompted discourse surrounding the effectiveness of technology in tackling social disparities. While it is indisputable that technology has had and will continue to have a profound influence on the legal system in the United Kingdom, it remains contentious whether, regarding access to justice, such an influence is advantageous.
In the United Kingdom, a GBP 1 Billion justice reform programme was launched by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in 2016 (The HMCTS Reform Programme (2018), gov.uk). The initiative is targeted at changing approaches to the administration of justice. One of the main elements hindering access to justice is the inability for individuals and the state to afford legal proceedings. In an effort to cut costs, 50% of courts have been closed since 2016 and it is expected than many more will follow in the years to come (Constituency Data: Magistrates’ Court Closures (2019), House of Common Library). Through the implementation of such measures, the HMCTS has achieved a result antithetical to their objective. Geographically, access to justice is significantly frustrated as opportunities to achieve justice become more remote. Nonetheless, the HMCTS maintains its commitment to promoting access to justice. Though it may seem counterintuitive to decrease the number of available courts whilst pursuing accessible justice, such measures introduce an opportunity for technology to become a more primary tool in the legal sector.
The Role of Technology
In the United Kingdom, mechanisms are already in place to reduce inefficiencies in the judicial system. Cases of limited complexity can be dealt with online with the support of a mediator thereby reducing state expenditure on legal services which may be alternately purposed to support vulnerable groups without access to justice. Technology enables greater efficiency and consistency in legal practice. Various software such as research, verification, and archiving technologies are bound to reduce the hours spent on a case. Tasks considered mundane to the average lawyer have the potential to be quickly and efficiently concluded by such software ultimately reducing the cost of legal services and subsequently increasing access to justice. Legal software does not only increase access to justice in the obvious sense in which it makes it more affordable, it also makes the law more accessible in terms of comprehension. There are countless apps that have recently been introduced into the market which contain a library of explanatory videos, simple definitions, and opportunities to live-chat with a legal professional. Technology simplifies the law for the layperson and facilitates a ‘self-help’ approach to legal practice. The significant influence legal technology has on an individual’s ability to access justice on their own has the possibility of reducing the need for expensive legal services and proceedings.
Social media undoubtedly enjoys a major influence over society. The more legal institutions develop an online presence, the greater their reach. Various non-profit organisations use social media profiles to educate the public of their rights. Many such profiles even provide the opportunity to be matched with a practitioner based on particular needs. As many may not even think to consult a legal software to become informed, social media allows different institutions to educate the public in a non-confrontational manner. In contemporary society, having a social media profile on one or more platforms is quite likely and it appears that using social media to improve access to justice has the capacity to reach much of the population.
The Digital Divide
Nevertheless, the digital divide cannot be ignored. Statistics show that the elderly and economically disadvantaged individuals are those most affected by the digital divide. Older generations are often sceptical of technological advancements and may choose to opt out of the newest developments. Alternatively, those who are economically disadvantaged may find themselves unable to afford or access relevant technology. If the HMCTS justice reform programme is focused on modernising the courts system, one must consider how this may influence those without adequate access to or understanding of technology. As a means of remedying this issue, the United Kingdom has committed to assessing the impact of the reform programme and implementing appropriate solutions. As such, the HMCTS has introduced an external advisory panel which objectively considers outcome, access, and costs in relation to the programme (Ibid.). Continuous monitoring allows the programme to adapt quickly and limits opportunities to hinder access to justice. Through constant analysis of the impact of reform, it appears that technological advancements in the judiciary have the potential to become of great benefit. The advisory panel aims to focus their evaluation on vulnerable groups and those with limited technological capabilities.
It appears obvious that the technological revolution occurring in the legal sphere has had a profound influence on all those involved. Technology has positively influenced the judiciary in that it has enabled service extension, cost restriction, resource preservation, and enhanced legal services efficiency. Contrarily, the technological reform of justice has indeed exercised a negative influence over access to justice for vulnerable groups. Technology facilitates the progression of the legal system into an innovative and forceful system. The generation of financial savings and increased efficiency should not disrupt the function of the courts. While it remains contentious whether technology in the legal sector has wholly positive or negative influences on access to justice, it is evident that consistent evaluation of progress can lead to a technologically advanced legal system that supports all vulnerable groups regarding access to justice. While developing technologies, the equality of the legal system should remain the foremost concern. Current systems are not yet fully capable of furthering access to justice, but constant evolution and assessment should eventually promote this ambition.