Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Understanding Courts – a report from JUSTICE

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In January 2019, the Human Rights Group JUSTICE published the report, Understanding Courts. It was the work of a group chaired by  Sir Nicholas Blake.

The central message of the report – which builds on other reports published over the last few years by JUSTICE – is that going to court can be a confusing, intimidating and disempowering experience for lay people, whether as parties, witnesses or jurors. This is only compounded for people who are unrepresented, and for otherwise vulnerable people.

This report argues that, in the context of the current programme of reform of courts and tribunals, lay people should be put at the heart of court processes. The objective is to encourage meaningful access to justice through effective participation.

There are 41 recommendations in the report which focus on what effective participation should mean in practice. In broad outline, the key issues are that

  • lay people should be informed about what will happen at their hearing through advance information provided by multiple means;
  • court professionals should recognise that lay people should be their primary focus and adapt their approach accordingly;
  • case management should ensure that lay people understand processes and assists with that understanding;
  • legal jargon and confusing modes of address should be avoided, using plain English alternatives;
  • there needs to be a change in professional culture that can otherwise exclude lay people;
  • there should be appropriate adaptations to enable participation by children and those with a disability; and
  • there should be support for all users who need it.

It is an interesting report, which deserves to be taken seriously. But I have the specific comments to make.

1 Tribunals have long espoused the key principles set out in this report. There is mention in this report that the user focus of tribunals needs to be brought into the court system. If this report has the effect of stopping (court) judges regarding tribunals as second class courts, rather than as first class dispute resolution forums, then it will have served a useful purpose.

2 There are many recommendations in the reports about ensuring that information provided by courts is user-friendly and up to date. This again is welcome but this is a message that has been developed on many occasions over recent years. Now is the time to get down to the hard work of developing user-friendly information and forms that really do enable individuals to improve their access to justice – using the potential of IT to the full.

3 If the change of culture recommended in the report is to be fully realise this has a significant implication for the training, not just of the judiciary, but also of court staff and other legal professionals. The recent spate of press stories about bullying judges is extremely worrying – it is hard to see how a bullying judge would have the empathy or patience to adopt the approach outlined in this report. Judges already in post will need as much training in the interpersonal skills required to change court culture as those coming new to the role.

The full report is available at https://justice.org.uk/our-work/areas-of-work/what-is-a-trial/

 

 

 

 

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