Administrative Justice Council Webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on administrative justice (29 April 2020)
On Wednesday 29th April, the Administrative Justice Council (AJC) hosted a webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on the administrative justice system.
The webinar was chaired by Naomi Creutzfeldt of Westminster University, who co-chairs the AJC’s Academic Panel. Speakers gave an overview of how their sector had been impacted by the pandemic, and the measures in place to enable continued access to justice. Speakers included AJC Chair Sir Ernest Ryder, Senior President of Tribunals; Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman; Luc Altmann, Deputy Head of Insights at HMCTS; Lindsey Poole, Director of the Advice Services Alliance and Chair of the AJC Advice Sector Panel; and Diane Secchi, South West London Law Centre/Simmons & Simmons and Chair of the AJC Pro Bono Panel. A paper by Donal Galligan, Director of the Ombudsman Association, and Niki Maclean, Director of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, was shared with participants.
Sir Ernest spoke about the impact of the virus on tribunal hearings, which are now being conducted via a telephone and video conference system, with more than 2,500 remote hearings being held per week. He spoke of the phases of the courts and tribunals response, including the emergency response, involving shifting from panels to single-judge hearings, a gradual return to full panels, and a stage of defining the ‘new normal’ after a period of evaluation following the end of the lockdown. Among the benefits of remote hearings are the opportunity to record hearings and to obtain feedback from judges and users immediately at the end of the hearing.
- Rob Behrens updated participants on the challenges of delivering a complaints service under the current constraints. He explained the PHSO’s decision to pause accepting new complaints about the NHS, and investigating current complaints, to reduce pressure on NHS staff during this period. He also suggested that the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to bring in long-delayed reform of the ombud sector.
- Luc Altmann described the work the Insights Team is doing to evaluate the access to justice implications of Covid-19, in particular the research on video and audio hearings. He highlighted the risks to access to justice in terms of an increase in users’ vulnerabilities and the reduced capacity for advice for litigants in person.
- Diane Secchi presented the findings from her report for the AJC on digitalisation and the high level of need for digital assistance. For more details of this report, see below.
- Her findings were reflected too in the presentation by Lindsey Poole, who highlighted the increased need for the advice sector in supporting people through this critical time and in preventing and mitigating the problems that otherwise lead to legal challenges. It was emphasised that now, more than ever, advice is needed to help people who have been hard hit, as a result of the virus, in areas such as social security, housing, unemployment and indebtedness.
All speakers reflected the view that administrative justice mechanisms are unlikely to return to the way things were done pre-Covid-19.
Documents and presentations from the speakers can be found here:
- Donal Galligan and Niki Maclean’s paper on the impact of Covid-19 lockdown to date – Ombudsman sector Ombuds COVID19
- Luc Altmann from HMCTS – HMCTS
- Lindsey Poole’s report A Quick Appraisal of the impact of COVID-19 on the advice sector– ASA Report COVID19 and Lindsey’s presentation ASA PP COVID19
In addition, the AJC launched its first report ‘Digitisation and Assessing justice in the Community’. The report is in response to the Courts and Tribunals Reform Programme, ‘Transforming Our Justice System,’ and highlights the impact of digitisation both on front-line advice services and the people they serve. The report, which was drafted prior to COVID-19, focuses on social security appeals and points to those who may be digitally challenged and ‘left behind’ as tribunals move to a digital justice system. It was highlighted that requests for digital assistance will increase and with the accelerated pace of digitisation, providers of advice and legal support will need to respond and adapt to meet a growing demand for digital assistance. The evidence found in this report is that many organisations were already struggling to meet demand for requests. It makes a number of recommendations to the Government and can be found here.
Speaking of the report, Sir Ernest, Chair of the AJC said:
“We now find ourselves in unprecedented times where the use of technology has become essential and central to our users’ lives. The report represents an introduction to the work that will be needed to ensure that frontline services are able to support individuals who are unable to access justice digitally. It poses an invitation to those involved in Reform to collaborate in the future and help improve access to justice to those who need it the most.”
The webinar was recorded and can be found here.