Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Reshaping the Court estate: a further consultation

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The programme of transformation of the justice system depends on the closure of a significant number of existing court buildings and reinvestment of the savings of running costs and the capital receipts from buildings that have been disposed of in a smaller but more efficient court estate.

In January 2018, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service published a Consultation Paper setting out the basic principles on which detailed plans are now being developed. At the same time there were 5 more specific papers setting our proposals for closing courts in a number of areas, including Cambridge, the Thames Valley, London and Lancashire. There is nothing particularly new in this paper, though it does give interesting accounts of a number of initiatives currently on-going to deliver new ways of working in courts and tribunals.

The key aims are that there should be

  • more videolinks and virtual hearings;
  • digital service delivery, with a major reduction in the use of paper files;
  • flexible opening hours;
  • improved service delivery with much more work being undertaken online.

The number of court buildings will be reduced from around 530 buildings (a decade ago) to a total of 239 buildings in 2018. It is accepted that this will lead to some increase in travel time to reach those buildings, but the vast majority will still, according to HMCTS figures, still be within 2 hours travelling distance. As much work will in future be delivered without the need for lawyers and parties to be present in court, it is argued that this will further mitigate any inconvenience. What will be important will be to ensure that cases listed for a particular day are actually dealt with on that day.

The Consultation Paper reminds readers that the transformation policy is designed

  • to enable existing and new buildings to be much more flexible in the ways in which they can be used;
  • to ensure better public facilities – e.g. waiting rooms, rooms for clients to consult with their advisers;
  • to ensure that the vulnerable are able to feel confident about using court facilities;
  • to include of modern ICT to enable more work to be done online
  • to support the needs of all the professionals who use the courts;
  • to move towards an estate that provides dedicated hearing centres, while seeking
    opportunities to concentrate back office functions in a smaller number of centres where they can be carried out most efficiently.

There will be resistance to some of these ideas. For example, the Bar has already argued against more flexible opening hours. It is said that this could be discriminatory against women barristers who may find it hard to take cases outside traditional working hours. While this is an issue that must be addressed, such arguments fail to acknowledge the fact historically the Court Service has only paid lip-service to the idea of delivering a service to court users. Many parties to litigation may find it more convenient to attend hearings outside of 10-4, Mondays to Fridays. The transformation programme provides a challenge to those who work in the courts to consider how they can deliver the service that clients want, when they want it.

The Consultation runs until 29 March 2018. The documentation can be found at https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-court-tribunal-estate/

 

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Written by lwtmp

January 19, 2018 at 12:18 pm

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