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Preventing exclusion in an age of digitalisation

Preventing exclusion in an age of digitalisation

By Jo Hynes (Research Fellow, Public Law Project and PhD candidate, University of Exeter)

This blog piece summarises the full rapporteur’s briefing available on the Public Law Project website.

Despite significant benefits, the ongoing HMCTS reform programme’s commitment to digital justice poses significant challenges, not least in the form of digital exclusion. This risk of excluding individuals who lack the skills, confidence or hardware to engage with the justice system online is currently being addressed through an ‘Assisted Digital’ service called ‘Digital Support’. For the 16% of the UK population who are unable to ‘participate in a digital society’, this programme is a vital safety net. For the reform agenda as a whole, an effective Digital Support service will be crucial in delivering the reform programme’s promise to ‘maintain or improve access to justice’.

Digital Support has been in a ‘test and learn’ pilot since September 2017. This initial roll-out was appraised by the delivery partner, Good Things Foundation, as well as in Public Law Project’s recent report. An addendum to the initial implementation review is also due in August 2021. This will evaluate the final phase of the pilot and, in particular, the remote delivery aspects of this latest phase. The service is due to be rolled out nationally when the pilot comes to an end in September 2021.

Public Law Project recently held a roundtable discussion to explore this next phase of Digital Support. The roundtable was held on 1 June 2021 and consisted of a two hour open discussion between 17 stakeholders and interested parties (the ‘Expert Group’). It was chaired by The Rt Hon Sir Ernest Ryder.

It is an important time for Digital Support, as it transitions from a pilot into a national service whilst also addressing the challenge of remote delivery created by the COVID-19 pandemic. At this moment of transition, the Expert Group asked ‘what next’ for Digital Support. The membership of the Expert Group brought to these discussions a wide range of experiences and expertise, and we are extremely grateful for their thoughtful contributions. The discussion is summarised across four key themes below.

Delivery of Digital Support

A central theme of all the discussions around the delivery of Digital Support was the extent to which it can or should be separated from legal advice. Many members of the Expert Group felt that detaching the two made delivery more complicated and left providers less able to provide a coherent service. There was very strong support for delivering digital advice alongside legal advice, allowing users to move between different types and levels of advice smoothly.      

The importance of a face-to-face service was also raised by members. In particular, many suggested that this in-person contact in a familiar location, co-located with other services, was absolutely essential. For some members, delivering Digital Support remotely would undermine its value, especially for the most vulnerable users.

Keeping digital and legal advice within the same appointment and delivering Digital Support in face-to-face appointments wherever possible were not only seen as valuable components in their own right, but for many it was felt that they were the most reliable way to create an ‘end-to-end’ service. A majority of members supported the conception of Digital Support as an ‘end-to-end’ service, where advice providers were able to offer a continuous contribution to the Digital Support user.

Good triaging systems and capacity for Digital Support providers to offer effective case management were seen by several members as essential infrastructure to Digital Support delivery. More broadly, many members highlighted the importance of a well maintained legal information estate and effective information provision at Digital Support appointments. There was broad agreement that referral networks and clear signposting into and out of Digital Support services were absolutely vital to the success of Digital Support.

Several members highlighted the need for greater support and ‘upskilling’ of the staff in Digital Support participating centres. One member acknowledged this need, whilst also suggesting that if support staff required assistance with digital skills, then this was an indication either that the Digital Support process or the online court process itself was flawed.

Funding of Digital Support

The broad support for Digital Support and legal advice to be provided together by accredited providers was countered by suggestions that HMCTS was unable to fund legal advice and the kind of ‘end-to-end’ support that many members said was needed. However, others in the group suggested that this rigidity in the system was not insurmountable, proposing that this arrangement could be challenged, albeit it at a ministerial level.

Additional support

Throughout the roundtable discussions there were many references to the importance of acknowledging the wider needs (emotional, procedural and legal) of Digital Support users. Recognising and meeting these needs was considered crucial to the success of Digital Support appointments – a sentiment that is reflected in the Good Things Foundation’s evaluation. Early legal advice was regarded as an essential part of the ‘jigsaw’ of services that Digital Support slotted into.

Objectives of Digital Support

There was a general consensus in the group that there was a huge spectrum of need amongst Digital Support users. Not only were there particularly vulnerable populations that the service needed to support, but because there is a lot at stake when addressing legal problems, many other people may need assistance. Many members highlighted that it was critical that we better understand this spectrum of need, including both the nature of the target group for Digital Support, their behaviours and typical journeys into and out of Digital Support services.

More broadly, a number of members cautioned against embedding and compounding existing problems and discrimination into this new service. They highlighted the fact that Digital Support overlies a landscape of long-term unmet legal need, poverty and systematic disadvantage, and for some communities the long-standing nature of these challenges means they risk not being sufficiently served by interventions like Digital Support.

Some members conceived of Digital Support as a fairly narrow service to provide digital advice in isolation, but the majority of the group saw it as ideally a broader intervention. Others still suggested that it was not a case of an ‘either/or’ scenario, but there were shorter-term solutions, such as improving the quality of and signposting to the current legal information estate offering. One member highlighted the potential value in thinking about Digital Support in the context of other Assisted Digital projects and the possibility for cross-government working across these projects.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, there was a feeling amongst the roundtable participants that this was a time of opportunity that needed to be grasped in order to make Digital Support an effective intervention. There was broad agreement on the challenges facing the service and overlapping visions, particularly from the advice sector, of what a sustainable and effective Digital Support service should look like. However, there were concerns that at present Digital Support is not yet designed fully nor conceptually clear in terms of how it fits into the wider justice system. This articulation will be vital going forwards in order to implement Digital Support successfully, and in particular, to be able to build in the right data collection and evaluation frameworks.

We look forward to the publication of the addendum report evaluating the final phase of the pilot and the subsequent roll-out of the national Digital Support service. Public Law Project’s Public Law and Technology team will continue to monitor these developments. We are very grateful to all the roundtable participants for taking time to contribute their experience and expertise to these important discussions and hope that this dialogue can continue as Digital Support progresses.

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