What does the digitalisation of justice mean for persons with disabilities?

The European Commission is organising a consultation on the digitalisation of justice (deadline 10th of September).

The objective of the initiative it to provide ‘toolbox’ of measures to boost digitalisation in justice systems across the EU, including possible tools for legislation, funding and IT.

It concerns the digitalisation of:

  • Cross-border judicial cooperation in civil and criminal matters, access to justice for citizens and businesses in cross-border procedures in civil matters
  • Cooperation between EU institutions, agencies and bodies in criminal matters. At the same time
  • Justice at national level as a prerequisite for digitalisation of justice in a pan-European context (within the limits of EU competence)

Barriers faced by persons with disabilities

Since before the COVID-19 outbreak, persons with disabilities have difficulty accessing the justice system. Lack of accessibility and reasonable accommodation affects provisions of digital services and disability-friendly formats, access to information and built environment in and communication with and within the justice system; it ranges from inaccessible websites to inaccessible courtrooms.

Although the 2016 Web Accessibility Directive requires all website and mobile applications of the public sector bodies to be accessible to persons with disabilities, many websites are not fully accessible for users of screen-readers, or the information is not easily understandable for persons with intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities or on the autism spectrum, among others.

There is a lack of information available for persons with disabilities. The 2020 Justice Scoreboard shows that in 2019, 10 out of 27 EU Member States had no online information for persons with visual or hearing impairments.

A 2020 Study by the British Equality and Human Rights Commission on inclusive justice shows how the system is not designed to the needs of persons with disabilities hindering their ability to actively participate to justice-related decision directly affecting their lives. When designing the digitalisation of justice (in terms of tools and processes), attention should be given to the needs of persons with disabilities as to design an inclusive cross-border e-justice.

Workers with disabilities such as lawyers, judges, prosecutors and clerks, are affected by said lack of accessibility and reasonable accommodation which hinders their work and limits the amount of people with disabilities who are hired within the justice system.

Persons with disabilities and the digital gap

Persons with disabilities have a lower access to internet and digital tools than the rest of the population. Although limited data is available, a study indicates that in 2012, on average 7 out of 10 European citizens had Internet access at home but only 5 out of 10 among those who declared an activity limitation connected to impairment or disability. As persons with disabilities are also at a much higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, they are less likely to have access to internet and their own digital equipment such as computer, laptop and mobile (when there are accessible ICT products at an affordable price). Older persons with disabilities are particularly left behind, with no training on digital skills and often no alternatives to digital services.

While some countries took measures to ensure equal and free access to digital tools, major disparities remain. According to the 2020 Justice Scorecard, 12 EU Member States have not equipped their courts with computer terminals with internet connection available to the public. In countries that do have this service, it is not certain whether they are equipped to accessibility settings, such as screen readers for blind persons or those with low vision.

EDF’s recommendations

Digitalisation of the justice system has the potential to increase accessibility and equal access to justice to persons with disabilities in the EU. However, to do so, some disparities, including the digital gap and alternatives to digital services must be addressed.

EDF recommends that the European Commission includes the following points in its initiative:

  • Recognise accessibility as a core principle of the digitalisation of the justice system and ensure accessibility is a requirement in all EU initiatives on digitalisation, including in the ‘toolbox’ of measures to boost digitalisation in justice systems across the EU
  • Provide accessible alternatives to digital services and formats, and reasonable accommodations based on the individual needs of the person with disabilities – whether participants or workers in the justice system
  • Invest in increasing the digital skills of persons with disabilities in the EU, including of older persons with disabilities, with specific actions related to increasing their knowledge of digital accessibility features and how to make use of them
  • Increase the competences of ICT professionals in accessibility for persons with disabilities and invest in training future professionals to become specialised technical support and accessibility for persons with disabilities
  • Encourage the exchange of good practice in accessible digital justice between Member States
  • Train EU and national staffs working in the field of administration of justice in relation to the needs of persons with disabilities to access justice at the same level than non-disabled people
  • Gather data on accessibility and impact of digitalisation of justice on persons with disabilities, in particular in the EU Justice Scorecard
  • Ensure that persons with disabilities and their representative organisations at European, national and local levels, are involved in meaningful consultation when guiding the implementation of the points listed above