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Community justice - the modern way.

Community justice – the modern way.

One of the most noteworthy recent cuts to legal services has been the closure of one in five magistrates’ courts. Government announcements that 93 magistrates’ courts and 49 county courts were to close were met concerns that access to justice for the community would be hampered. Then justice minister Jonathan Djanogly forestalled concerns by promising an investment of £22m directed at improving and modernising remaining courts – but the Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association ‘expressed grave disappointment’ at the closure news.

The Politeia think-tank has now called for the restoration of what they call ‘local justice’: the ability for members of the community to see crimes tried in the towns and cities where they were committed. The paper – entitled ‘Magistrates Work!’ , and drafted by Conservative MP Simon Reevell, academic John Howson and barrister Stanley Brodie QC – says the closure of 90 magistrates’ courts since 2009 has had ‘lamentable’ consequences for access to justice and transparency.

How important is the need for local justice? Very, thinks Reevell. Speaking to the Law Gazette, he emphasised the benefits of community members seeing justice carried out in their own locality. Where offences are dealt with far from the area where the consequences of the crime were felt, “No one will hear anything about the case, no lessons will be learned, there will be no deterrent effect.”

Setting out the way forward, the paper makes it clear that keeping costs low is a primary imperative. They envision ‘a courtroom in every community’, with buildings adapted to facilitate proceedings, and buildings focusing on particular offences, such as domestic abuse, drugs or traffic offences. It remains to be seen whether the paper will strike a chord with policy-makers – but it’s clear that legal tech must and should play a central role in any proposals to increase local access to justice. If cost-cutting was the primary imperative for closure of magistrate’s courts, a clear focus on harnessing the power of 21st century IT technology to drastically reduce costs is essential.

In fact, earlier this year Justice Secretary Chris Grayling emphasised this point when announcing a one-off investment aimed at making savings in excess of £100 million per year, emphasising the use of dated manual entry and paper systems in the courts, and the 21st-century expectations of people accessing legal services.

If we are to see a return to greater community justice, a fearless approach to legal tech is the way forward. It’s not enough simply to permit members of the public to pay fees online, or facilitate the digital lodging of papers. Lawyers and magistrates must be equipped with ways to streamline their work, from the use of digital bundles and eDisclosure to shared, secure, 24-hour access to briefs. We await with interest any future developments – and hope that legal tech will continue to play a role in secure better access to justice for all.

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