Online Benefits to Online Courts: ‘There may be trouble ahead’

Problems with the digital rollout of a major social security benefit are so severe that implementation should be halted, says a recently released report from Citizens Advice. Its findings are highly relevant to how online dispute resolution should be implemented in the courts. A number of lessons should be learnt and the judiciary should make clear a number of red lines for the Online Solutions Court.

The report concerns the establishment of Universal Credit, a government flagship project which aims to unify a range of what are currently six social security  benefits. Implementation has been a nightmare. Its initial political champion has long since been moved from responsibility for its implementation. The whole thing has been totally revamped since initial implementation in 2013. A new digital version was phased in from May 2016 and it is due to be massively expanded in October. Mercifully, for this purpose the details of its operation are irrelevant except that it provides an indication of how government plans to implement online provision – in a core area of its business where it knows that it is under scrutiny. So, what is regarded as acceptable for Universal Credit is likely to be seen as even more so for the relatively small scale and politically less visible world of small claims litigation. In five years, universal credit  is a benefit will be received by seven million households – a sizeable percentage of the estimated 24m total.

Citizens Advice is the highly respected information provider which operates a national network of advice centres staffed by a mix of salaried and volunteer advisers. In 2016, it gave 30,000 people advice on 48,000 universal credit issues. The report reveals major malfunction of government in a key policy area: ‘nearly a third of the people we help have to make more than 10 calls for the UC helpline to sort out their UC, over a third are waiting more than six weeks for their first payment of benefit and half having to borrow money to cope with the initial wait for payment’. As reported in The Guardian, the government’s response did not really engage with the criticisms: ‘A DWP spokesman said: “The reality is that universal credit is simplifying the welfare system to make work pay and is already transforming hundreds of thousands of lives. Universal credit claimants are moving into work faster and staying in work longer, and the new welfare system will ensure 3m of the poorest households will be better off.’

The incompetent administration of a benefit by another government department is not directly relevant to the courts but the attitude to digitalisation might be.  Universal credit is a new benefit for which application can only be made online. The good news is that there is a helpline with telephone assistance available. The bad news is that this is not free: it costs up to 55 ($US0.71) pence per minute. The average call made by Citizens Advice clients took 39 minutes. ’30 per cent of survey respondents in full service UC areas said they made more than 10 calls to the helpline’. The absurdity of claimants for minimum income benefits having to pay commercial telephone bills which may amount of £20 or more is evident. The Department of Work and Pensions argues that the average waiting time is now 9 minutes  ‘due to an increase in resourcing’. Citizens Advice make it 30. Whatever the length, forcing users to pay the costs of digitalisation and the removal of physical offices with physical staff is little short of outrageous. And, if this is happening in relation to a basic income support benefit, then it is likely – unless challenged – to be the model for the Online Solutions Court. This would be a good moment for assurances on the retention of free assistance for litigants in person.

A broader issue relates to digital exclusion. Applicants for UC are likely to be a slightly different demographic than litigants. But, UC claimants had low access to computers – only 46 percent had internet access from a computer or tablet at home; 33 per cent had a mobile with internet access ad only 33 per cent could access a computer for free at a job centre or library: ’52 per cent found the online application “difficult”’. Citizens Advice called for a much more comprehensive support package for users. We are likely to need this for litigants as well.

Unlike the field of social security benefits, the government shares implementation of court initiatives with the judiciary – whose senior member have very much shown themselves as the drivers of this change. We now need some public acknowledgement that implementation by Her Majesty’s Court Service will take into account the deficiencies in the benefit implementation. Income-generating telephone help centres are just not acceptable as staff are increasingly replaced by technology – through they will be as tempting for the Ministry of Justice as they have been for the Department of Work and Pensions once the one-off capital boost from selling off the courts has been dispersed. Access to justice – like access to benefits – is not a responsibility which government should sell off in the way that has been done for Universal Credit. The savings from the use of technology should be enough – without making users pay for glitches in its implementation. We need the judiciary overseeing these reforms to make that clear.

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