Media Release

Voters and businesses support online court hearings

Most voters and businesses back the continued use of online court hearings as part of the modernisation of the justice system, a think-tank says today.

The Social Market Foundation found that three-quarters of the public are content with online hearings and other remote access arrangements. Just 27% of the public object to such innovations.

SMF/Opinium polling also found that 64% of businesses support remote access to the civil courts, where backlogs and delays are costing companies billions of pounds a year.

The findings were revealed in a report warning that politicians and legal authorities need to do much more to develop a long-term and coherent approach towards modernising the courts system.

The current court modernisation programme – due to be completed by 2023 – is expected to deliver some efficiencies at best, rather than transforming the justice system into one fit for the 21st Century, according to experts at a roundtable discussion held by SMF as part of its research.

Ambitious modernisation is needed because the civil and criminal courts are failing to serve the majority of the population well, as they are often unable to make use of the civil courts, the SMF said. That contributes to a “civil justice gap”. At the same time, the criminal courts are not delivering justice efficiently and effectively for the victims of crime, the wrongly accused or society. Together these failings in the civil and criminal courts are undermining faith in the rule of law.

The report was sponsored by Mishcon de Reya. The SMF retained full editorial independence.

The ‘civil justice gap’ – those who are unable to access civil justice to resolve their “civil legal problems” – means that only 6% of civil cases get legal advice. Those on low- and middle- incomes and SMEs find it more difficult to get resolution through the civil courts.

Closing the gap could save individuals and families up to £2bn a year, and between £40bn-£100bn a year for SMEs, the SMF report estimates.

Technological advancements have been more easily taken up by high-value legal claims – involving multi-national companies and high net-worth individuals – but the need for further reform remains. English and Welsh civil courts are ranked 20th worldwide, behind a number of jurisdictions like Singapore, Germany, and Australia.

According to the Social Market Foundation, the modernisation programme should go beyond the current plans that are set to end in 2023. The latest SMF report, Future-proofing justice, lays out a programme of making the civil and criminal court systems of England and Wales world-leading by 2030 – with emphasis on digital access.

To achieve the goal of making the civil and criminal court systems in England and Wales world-leading by 2030, the reforms need to:

  • Be future-facing, and based upon a robust body of evidence.
  • Have a central role for the right technologies, which can help deliver the transformation in the structures, management and processes of the two court systems that is needed.
  • Be built upon proven approaches, through the application of key lessons learnt from successful examples of court transformations and models of dispute resolution that have demonstrated themselves to be effective.


Richard Hyde, SMF Senior Researcher, said:
There is no doubt that the justice system has been letting people down for a long time.  Those on middle- and low-incomes in particular find it very difficult to access to justice through the civil courts. While the criminal courts are failing to deal with their caseloads efficiently and effectively. The result of these failings is large amounts of personal, financial and societal detriment and declining faith in the civil and criminal justice system.

“The Government’s court modernisation programme is due to end in 2023, but that’s when the real work – to put in-place world leading courts – should begin. There is a need for greater ambition and thought in the next phase of reforms – evidence-based changes and learning lessons from other successful examples of reform and digital access should be a key priority. The UK’s economic prosperity, security and social cohesion is dependent on vastly improved civil and criminal courts.


Nick West, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer at Mishcon de Reya, said:

While previous attempts at modernising the legal system have at times made incremental changes, it is clear that a significant shift is needed now. The best way to achieve this is to bring together everyone who has an interest in the future of English law and a commitment to effective and long lasting reform.”



  • The SMF report, Future-proofing justice, will be published at at 8 AM on Wednesday, 15th June 2022.
  • The report was sponsored by Mishcon de Reya. The SMF retains complete editorial independence of its publications.
  • SMF/Opinium polling: 1,000 individuals and 1,000 businesses of all sizes (ranging from sole traders to large companies) and operating across all the main sectors of the economy. The business sample included a mix of exporters, importers and solely domestically focused enterprises. Polling took place August 2021.

List of SMF’s recommendations:

  1. Developing a longer-term and more coherent approach – at the highest policymaking levels – towards the civil and criminal court systems in England and Wales.
  2. Establishing a “Justice Research Council” (JRC) with a ring-fenced endowment from the Government, that will institutionalise the arms-length commissioning, funding and publication of high quality, in-depth policy-focused research into a wide range of civil and criminal justice issues – whether that be from academics or other relevant research and policy bodies such as the Legal Education Foundation or the nascent National Institute for Legal innovation (NILI).
  3. Implementing, by the end of 2023, as much as possible of the current modernisation programme followed by a full (time-limited) and independent evaluation of its successes and failures, and the reasons behind the former and latter.
  4. Effectively utilising the new data that the modernisation programme is expected to generate about the users and functioning of the courts – in order to inform and improve policymaking and operational decision-making. Where necessary, appropriate training should be funded so that the opportunities the data offers can be maximised.
  5. Implementing the recommendations made by Lord Briggs for reforming the structure of the civil courts by the end of 2023 and ensuring that the changes reflect the lessons of successful models of dispute resolution such as British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) and the best ombudsman services (in the UK).
  6. Putting in place, by the end of 2023, Sir Brian Leveson’s proposed efficiency reforms from his 2015 report, including taking forward changes based upon the “out of scope” observations made in Chapter Ten.
  7. Developing a comprehensive new long-term court reform strategy to make the English and Welsh courts the best in the world by 2030.


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