Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘Chapter 5’ Category

Transforming the English Legal System: Criminal Justice

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The Consultation Paper, Transforming our Legal System, states, in relation to the Criminal Justice system that, first, the criminal courts should be more flexible. This will be achieved by:
i. Aligning the criminal courts: Magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court deal with
different levels of criminal offence, but they must work better together to provide a
more efficient service. We are working with the judiciary on structural and
procedural changes that will give the senior judiciary clearer oversight of, and
flexibility to manage, judicial leadership in the criminal jurisdiction. This will enable
the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts to operate more closely together –
stronger leadership and alignment will improve court performance for everyone
involved. To support this, we will bring the structures of the courts closer by
reforming existing local justice areas and making it easier to transfer cases between
the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court when appropriate – starting in the right
place will make the process simpler and easier for victims and defendants.
ii. Making it easier for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses (including victims) to give
evidence: We will roll out the use of pre-trial cross-examination in Crown Court
trials, allowing vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to pre-record their cross-
examination, meaning the witness does not always need to attend the trial itself. A
pilot found that this procedure meant witnesses gave evidence in half the time it
would take at trial. We believe that expanding this will reduce distress for victims
and witnesses and improve their overall experience of the justice system.
Second, the Government wants courts to do more to address offender behaviour. It is proposed that this should be done by:
i.Introducing problem solving courts: We are exploring the opportunities for problem
solving methods further with the judiciary and collecting the evidence base. We are
continuing to trial this approach in locations across the UK.
ii. Using out of court disposals: We will use out of court disposals in appropriate cases,
to help change offenders’ behaviour at the earliest possible opportunity– with swift
and certain consequences for offenders who do not comply with the conditions
Thirdly, the Government is seeking to improve process and technology for more efficient and digital justice. It plans to do this by
i. Streamlining process: We are making changes to the way cases progress through
the criminal courts, including removing unnecessary appearances in court (such as
first appearances in magistrates’ courts for cases which can only be tried in the
Crown Court), introducing a more efficient process to allocate cases to the Crown
Court or magistrates’ courts and allowing simple decisions to be made via a new
online system.

ii. Using technology to make processes more efficient: We will increase the use

of video link and telephone and video conferencing technology to make
hearings easier and more convenient for all, including victims and witnesses
and criminal justice system agencies. We will work with the police to hold bail
hearings by video link from police stations to reduce the need for some
offenders to be held in police cells overnight. In appropriate cases offenders
will be able to plead guilty, be convicted and sentenced all on the same day by
live video link from police stations.
iii. Introducing a new collaborative IT system: The Common Platform is already
being developed to provide a single case management IT system for use
throughout the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts. It will provide access to
case material and information to many agencies within the criminal justice
system as well as the defence, victims and witnesses. Many current paper and
court-based processes will be moved online, saving time and increasing
efficiency for all court users.
iv. Enabling online convictions and fixed fines: For certain routine, low-level
summary, non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim, we propose to
introduce a system which resolves cases entirely online. Defendants would log
on to an online system to see the evidence against them before entering a
plea. If they plead guilty, they can opt in to (and can always opt out of) the
online system which allows them to view the penalty, accept the conviction
and penalty, and pay their fine. Cases would be resolved immediately and
entirely online, without the involvement of a magistrate.

Many of these proposals build on initiatives already started. However, the suggestion for more problem solving courts is potentially quite innovative and could lead to significant change to the ways in which the criminal courts have historically operated.

See chapter 2:


Written by lwtmp

October 5, 2016 at 9:54 am

Transforming the English Legal System

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September 2016 saw the publication of an extremely important Consultation Paper, which sets out ideas on how the courts and tribunals system in England and Wales should be reformed.

Its proposals are based on three principles, that the reformed system should be proportionate, accessible and just.

The Paper states:

To deliver a system that is proportionate and tailored for the complexity and
seriousness of individual cases, [the Government is] taking a consistent approach across jurisdictions [i.e., criminal, administrative, family and civil], including:
i. More use of case officers for routine tasks: Judges spend too much of their time
dealing with uncontroversial, routine or straightforward matters which could just as
effectively be dealt with by court staff under judicial authorisation. Where it is
appropriate, specially trained staff will be able to carry out some of this work to
help justice move faster.
ii. More decisions made “on the papers”: Where a case is relatively straightforward or
routine, representations will be made online in writing for a judge to consider
outside of a traditional court room, without the need for a physical hearing,
meaning a more convenient experience for everyone involved.
iii. More virtual hearings: Where a judge needs to listen to the parties make their
arguments, it will be possible in many cases to hold the hearings over telephone or
video conference, without the need for the parties to travel to a court building.
There will still be an important place for physical court hearings for criminal trials
and other serious or complex cases, but where they are appropriate, virtual
hearings offer an easy and convenient alternative for everybody.
iv. More cases resolved out of court: In appropriate cases, we will encourage parties
to settle their disputes themselves, without the intervention of the courts.
The Government wants to make legal processes more accessible and easier for to use, with many  services moving online – for example:
i. Putting probate applications online: Dealing with probate affairs can be difficult and
complicated at a time when people are often coping with bereavement. We are
digitising the probate system to allow the entire process to be managed online,
from application to resolution, making it an easier and faster process when cases
are uncontested.
ii. Managing divorce online: Work has already begun to allow divorce applications to
be made and managed online, removing some of the bureaucracy from often
stressful and lengthy proceedings and simplifying cumbersome administrative
iii. Digitising applications for Lasting Powers of Attorney: Allowing people to make
arrangements for a time in the future when they may not be able to make
decisions by themselves is a helpful but often emotionally stressful process.
Applications have been partially digitised since 2014, resulting in fewer application
forms being returned because of errors. We will build on this by making the system
fully digital to deliver a quicker service.
Across the board, the Government wants to simplify forms and make processes more
straightforward so they are easier for everyone to understand. Many of these changes are designed to bring the justice system up to date for the modern world and take advantage of advances in technology to provide a faster,more accessible service for users of the courts and tribunals.
It is important, however, any unintended effects of this technology are taken into account to make sure that the system remains just. Thus the Government intends to:
i. Provide a system that works for everyone: Digital and online processes are easy
and efficient for many people, but the justice system must also work for people
who do not or cannot access services online. We must provide an alternative route
of access for every service that moves online. ..
ii. Continue to ensure open justice: It is a core principle of our justice system that
justice is open. “It is not merely of some importance, but of fundamental
importance that justice should not only be done, but should be manifestly and
undoubtedly seen to be done,” as Lord Chief Justice Hewart said in 1924. The
principle of open justice will be upheld and the public will still be able to see and
hear real-time hearings, whilst we continue to protect the privacy of the vulnerable.
Most of these changes build on initiatives that are already underway. What is important about this new Consultation Paper is that it is being jointly promoted by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals.
I set out in separate blog items the sections of the Paper on each of the different parts of the justice system.
The paper is not open for consultation for long. To read the paper and find the questions to which the government is seeking answers go to

Written by lwtmp

October 5, 2016 at 9:31 am

Reforming prisons

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One of the most intractable issues in the criminal justice system is enabling prisons do more to try to draw offenders away from a life of crime and to become more productive and engaged citizens.

In the Queen’s Speech, delivered on 18 May 2016, the announcement of a new Prisons Bill was made. The details are not yet available but at the heart of the reforms are proposals to significantly improve educational opportunities for inmates – and to give Prison Governors more autonomy over how they run their prisons.

Accompanying the text of the Queen’s speech was an announcement that in the short-term 6 pilot ‘trailblazer’ reform prisons would be established to test the effectiveness of new approaches. The intention is that 5000 prisoners should be in the reform prisons by the end of 2016.

The importance of education of prisoners was emphasise in a review, published at the same time by Dame Sally Coates.

For further (preliminary) information on reform prisons see

The Coates report can be found at

The big challenge, noted by many commentators, is how such reforms can be made effective given the large numbers of people currently detained in prison. Many think that it will be essential for numbers in jail to be reduced if those who would really benefit from the reform proposals are to be helped.


Written by lwtmp

May 20, 2016 at 5:56 pm

What is a court? Proposals for a modern approach to the courts and tribunals estate.

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The programme for restructuring how all the buildings currently used by courts and tribunals – to ensure better and more effective usage – is gathering pace. A significant contribution to how detailed policy may develop was made this month by the legal think-tank, JUSTICE. A recent working party report (in which I participated)  recommends:

  • The reconception of court and tribunal rooms as ‘justice spaces’. This new model is defined by its inherent flexibility and rejection of the over-standardisation prevalent in existing courts and tribunals. Justice spaces are designed to adapt to the particular dispute resolution process taking place within them, and the needs of users, rather than the other way around.
  • A flexible and responsive court and tribunal estate, made up of a number of dynamic parts. The Working Party suggests a portfolio of Flagship Justice Centres; Local Justice Centres; ‘Pop-up courts’; remote access justice facilities; and digital justice spaces.

The Working Party emphasises the importance of technology, and its potential to meet user needs and maximise access to justice. All of the Working Party’s proposals are anchored in a commitment to a core set of principled considerations to ensure fairness of process and access to justice. Finally, the report makes practical recommendations aimed at ensuring the effective implementation of the HMCTS Reform Programme.

The full report (and accompanying Press Release) can be accessed at

Bringing coherence to sentencing: proposals from the Law Commission

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There is a huge volume of law relating to the sentences courts may impose on those found guilt of committing criminal offences.

Indeed, there is so much that judges often take decisions that, in law, they are not allowed to make. To quote from a recent announcement from the Law Commission:

A survey of 400 Court of Appeal cases from 2012 by the sentencing expert Robert Banks found that 262 were appeals against sentences and that of these, 76 included sentences that had been unlawfully passed in the Crown Court. Banks wrote, “[This] figure shows that we can no longer say the sentencing system is working properly. Cases since then have indicated that these figures are not unrepresentative.”

Currently, the law lacks coherence and clarity: it is spread across many statutes, and frequent updates are brought into force at different times by different statutory instruments and with a variety of transitional arrangements. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for practitioners and the courts to understand what the present law of sentencing procedure actually is. This can lead to delays, costly appeals and unlawful sentences.

The Law Commission is currently engaged in a project designed to introduce a single sentencing statute that will act as the first and only port of call for sentencing tribunals.

It will set out the relevant provisions in a clear and logical way, and ensure that all updates to sentencing procedure can be found in a single place. It is not the aim of this project to interfere with mandatory minimum sentences or with sentencing tariffs in general. Those will remain entirely untouched, but the process by which they come to be imposed will be streamlined and much improved.

The latest stage in the process has recently taken place with the publication on 20 May 2016 of a paper setting out proposals for the transition from the current position to a reformed position.

The amount of work still to be undertaken is enormous, and will not be effective for at least two more year – perhaps longer. But this is a project of great importance not just to criminal lawyers, but all those interested in the criminal justice system.

For an outline of the progress on work to date go to


Written by lwtmp

May 20, 2016 at 5:27 pm

Problem solving courts – next steps

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One of the really interesting ideas under consideration in government and the judicary is that of ‘problem solving’ courts. The concept has been floating around for some time but has recently been given new impetus.

The idea is that offender behaviour change might be enhanced through a model of judicially supervised rehabilitative programmes. These would be designed to encourage
innovation in the use of judicial disposals and improve compliance with the orders of the court; and to deliver a swifter and more certain response to crime and to reduce
In February 2016, the government  announced the terms of reference for a working group – reporting to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice.
The working group will advise on:
  • existing models of problem-solving courts nationally and internationally, and their applicability to England and Wales;
  • the feasibility of options for pilot models including practical, legislative and constitutional issues, and judicial leadership;
  • the support needed from within and without the criminal justice system, including the development, or improvement, of pathways in to rehabilitative and behaviour change interventions
  • the key criteria for a future suite of pilots of problem-solving courts, including the lessons from previous pilots and the required statutory provisions for taking forward any new pilots.
The working group will need to take account of domestic and international evidence of what works well in engendering behaviour change through a problem-solving court approach. This includes the scope, quality and effectiveness of past and current models, in particular theUSA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.The group should also consider the reasons why previous attempts at setting up Problem Solving Courts have been unsuccessful and take account of lessons learnt.
No date is given for the completion of the group’s work but I guess it won’t appear before the end of 2016.
It obviously is designed to fit with recent announcements about changes to the ways in which prisons are run – and the need to ensure that few people are actually sent to prison so that – om their different ways – both courts and the prison service will be working on offender education and rehabilitation.
The text of the announcement is at

Written by lwtmp

February 19, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Court closures: the details

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In July 2015, the Government launched a consultation on closing under used courts. 91 possible buildings were earmarked for possible closure. (See this blog 26 July 2015)

We know that reduction of the court estate is a key component needed to fund the investment needed to modernise the court estate. (See this blog 3o Nov 2015).

The Government has now announced the buildings that are to be closed – together with an indicative timetable showing that the closure programme will run over 2 years.

In the end only 64 of the sites originally identified will close as proposed. A further 22 closures will take place, but modified from the original proposals. 5 escape the axe altogether.

The details can be found at

Written by lwtmp

February 19, 2016 at 4:56 pm