Piloting Digital Support with HM Courts and Tribunals Service

29 Sep 2020 |Written by Adam Micklethwaite

Since 2017 Good Things Foundation has been working with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to pilot the delivery of face-to-face Digital Support for court users, provided in communities. The pilot is part of the HMCTS Reform Programme, transforming the courts and tribunals service and aiming to ‘bring new technology and modern ways of working to the way justice is administered’.

9 million people in the UK cannot use the internet without support, and need assistance to use digital services. They are more likely to face social and economic exclusion, including unemployment, poverty, low literacy and disability. The pilot aims to support people in this group who need to access a range of critical HMCTS services online, including appealing the withdrawal of benefits, getting help with court fees, paying fines, applying for a divorce, and applying for probate.

Reflecting the focus of the pilot, we have worked with a varied mix of community-based organisations: those offering accredited legal advice, those offering specialist welfare and benefits advice, and non-specialist centres offering a range of support on employment, health and other issues.

‘Assisted digital support’ (which we and HMCTS have referred to as Digital Support) is an important part of the continuing digital transformation of Government services, ensuring that people who face barriers to using services online are able to access and use these services.

Right now, this support is more important than ever. People who are shielding or isolating from Covid-19 need to access essential services online and are more likely to experience barriers that prevent them from doing so, including a lack of digital confidence and skills. Alongside this, demand for many digital services, including benefits, has increased dramatically as a result of lockdown and its impact on the economy and society. Those already facing the greatest barriers have been hit hardest.

As a test and learn pilot, the purpose of our work with HMCTS has been to identify the features of effective Digital Support and the needs of those who require it. We have worked with HMCTS to test a set of design features for face-to-face Digital Support and adapt the design in line with insight collected from community partners and users.

From the pilot, we have learned:

  • That Digital Support is highly valued by users and addresses a clear set of barriers to the use of digital services, including access to devices and data, low digital confidence and low or no digital skills;
  • That people needing Digital Support typically present with a range of other needs, which need to be addressed together - these include emotional, procedural and legal needs. Although additional support is not within the remit of the funded face-to-face Digital Support service, where it is needed it cannot be separated from Digital Support;
  • That community and legal support centres are an effective way to provide Digital Support, because they are known and trusted by users;
  • That commissioning frameworks should be clear about outcomes but flexible enough to allow community and legal support centres to embed Digital Support in a way that makes sense for the offer they provide.

The pilot has continued during the period of Covid-19 lockdown, with a number of community partners adapting their delivery to the new environment. This has included filling in forms on behalf of users, and using telephone and video calling to deliver Digital Support.

It is extremely important that Digital Support is in place for HMCTS services. As the pandemic continues and the recession takes hold, a surge in courts and tribunals proceedings is expected. Access to justice will rely increasingly on digital channels, and a lack of digital confidence and skills is a barrier that will need to be addressed.

The findings of the pilot also have wider implications across Government provided services, from the NHS to Jobcentres. With online access now the only option for many, it is more important than ever that Government Departments and agencies, and Government as a whole, consider ways to put in place Digital Support that is effective, efficient, and recognises that user needs cross policy and service boundaries. Digital Support should reflect the universal barriers users face and be designed around their needs.

Digital exclusion is an acute national problem. Good Things Foundation has called on Government to invest in digital inclusion for everyone who needs it: the ‘Great Digital Catch Up’, a place in every village, town and city where people can gain digital confidence and essential digital skills.

Alongside this, it is vital that Digital Support continues for those who need urgent access to online Government services, addressing their needs while maximising value for public funds. We hope that the findings of this pilot can help HMCTS, and the rest of Government ensure this support is in place.