Digital exclusion: the downside of going online...

Digital exclusion: the downside of going online...

Over the past couple of decades, local and national government services have increasingly been moving online. HMRC offices have closed up and down the country, forcing people to fill out their tax returns primarily online, and council housing centres have shut their doors in favour of call centres and online council tax payment systems. Although this trend has been marketed as the government ‘moving into the digital age’ with the purported aim of increasing efficiency and accessibility, it’s arguably merely a cost saving measure in an era of austerity.

Most contentiously, the shift towards making ‘digital’ the primary means of accessing services has led to the digital exclusion of many citizens, especially the older generations who are less accustomed to technology. One memorable scene in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake depicts the frustration of a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work due to sickness, struggling to apply for benefits using the online service in a local jobcentre.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published a report exploring the UK’s digital divide. It noted that “in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10.0% of the adult UK population” who cannot - or do not - use the internet. Juxtapose this with the government’s digital strategy of “maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens online” and it’s no wonder that a sizeable minority of the population are feeling increasingly digitally excluded.

Access to justice: government digital services

The primary point of contact for administrative and legal functions has traditionally been council offices and courts. But the trend of moving government services online means that GOV.UK or similar official portals are now the first port of call. For example:

  • Monetary claims - recovering money owed by individuals or businesses previously involved lodging a claim with the small claims court.

  • Divorce - online divorces have been around for sometime but these used to still be handled by lawyers, now individuals can simply fill out an online form.

  • Planning applications - most planning applications are now submitted online, and objections are similarly handled on the web.

Whilst tech savvy younger generations may enjoy the convenience of being able to run their lives via smartphones from a coffee bar, some people will find online form filling daunting at the best of times - more so when they are handling a stressful legal situation.

Online lawyers

Since the legal profession largely offers a reactive service - which people often only seek out when they have a problem which needs to be solved - most private clients (and even smaller commercial clients) don’t have an ongoing relationship with a lawyer as they might do with a regular GP. As such, potential clients often first turn to Google when looking for a solicitor, and their first point of contact will usually be the law firm’s website. Although phone numbers are normally prominent, more often than not website visitors are directed to an online form which they can use to submit their query. Alternatively there is the email option - and sometimes even chatbots (eg BillyBot). Even if a lawyer is instructed in an initial face to face consultation, future communication is often primarily carried out via email or sometimes using the client facing part of a case management system. Once again, dealing with a lawyer online may come naturally to the Amazon generation, but many people will find it impersonal and - more importantly - key facts pertinent to a case may be omitted if the mode of communication seems unnatural to a client.

DIY law

It would be remiss not to mention the burgeoning “law for good” sector and digital disruptors which have been propelled by legaltech investment. CrowdJustice provides a platform which enables claimants to seek funding for their cases (often with a social justice aspect). Meanwhile services such as DoNotPay allow individuals to assert their legal rights without paying a penny. Then you have legal document template companies such as Rocket Lawyer which provide legal documents for a fraction of the cost of having a solicitor draft up a bespoke contract. DIY law is arguably opening up legal justice to a wider public who would otherwise be priced out, but it comes at the cost of less personal interaction.

Courts digitisation programme

As has been discussed before in the Future of Law, HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is pursuing a £1 billion plan to reform the court and tribunal system, much of which is geared towards digitisation and moving various court functions online. Pilots have been held to test fully online court hearings, and defendants in custody already routinely use video link for pre-trial proceedings rather than appearing in court in person. But practitioners often point to the risks of digitisation in criminal courts and how it can lead to defendants becoming disadvantaged and more vulnerable. Abigail Bright, a barrister elected to represent criminal barristers under seven years’ call, says that: “The Criminal Bar Association has thrown the weight of its number behind digital courtroom technology whilst recognising that unrepresented defendants are increasingly common, many of whom are illiterate and have no ready access to a computer.” It is often argued that much of the digitisation budget should instead be spent on propping up the ailing legal aid system to ensure that justice is better served.

Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a copywriting agency. Email Twitter @alexheshmaty.

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About the author:
Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting and marketing agency.