Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

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Domestic Abuse Bill 2020

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The problem of domestic abuse has slowly risen up the political agenda over the past few years. For far too long regarded it was regarded as essentially a private matter in which public authorities, in particular the police, were often reluctant to act. However, the indefatigable work of charitable organisations, such as Refuge, have done much to change the minds of policymakers. And it was an issue which the former Prime Minister Theresa May took particularly seriously.

Over the last 2 and a half years, there have been a series of steps leading to reform of the law. 

1. A Consultation Paper, setting out proposed changes to the law, was published in March 2018. This identified 4 objectives for change:

  • promoting awareness – to  raise public and professional awareness
  • protection and support – to enhance the safety of victims and the support that they receive
  • transforming the justice process – to prioritise victim safety in the criminal and family courts, and review the perpetrator journey from identification to rehabilitation
  • improving performance – to drive consistency and better performance in the response to domestic abuse across all local areas, agencies and sectors.

2. The consultation was followed by a draft Domestic Abuse Bill in March 2019 which was considered by a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords. It set out the following issues which required legislative change. They are:

  • creation of a statutory definition of domestic abuse;
  • establishment of the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and setting out the commissioner’s functions and powers;
  • providing for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order;
  • prohibiting perpetrators of domestic and other forms of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts (and preventing victims from having to cross-examine their abusers) and giving the court discretion to prevent cross-examination in person where it would diminish the quality of the witness’s evidence or cause the witness significant distress;
  • creating a statutory presumption that complainants of an offence involving behaviour that amounts to domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal courts;
  • enabling high-risk domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody;
  • placing the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme on a statutory footing;
  • ensuring that, where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy), this must be a secure lifetime tenancy;
  • extending the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts in England and Wales to further violent and sexual offences.

3. The consultation on the Draft Bill was concluded in July 2019, and a Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced into Parliament on the same day. However, it fell when the December 2019 General Election was called.

4. In March 2020, a revised Domestic Abuse Bill was published which is now proceeding through Parliament. It is largely the same as the 2019 Bill though a number of proposed clauses have been strengthened. For example, the powers of the Courts to protect victims from being cross-examined by abusers have been enlarged.

The timetable for the Bill provides that it should have passed through the Commons by the end of June 2020. It is likely to have passed the Lords and be given Royal Assent sometime in the Autumn of 2020.

Although I have not linked this initiative directly to Covid 19, as I have done in a number of other blog items, there is a clear link between the two since one of the well-publicised consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown has been a sharp increase in the numbers of people seeking help to protect them from domestic abuse.

I will update the blog on this issue after the Bill becomes law.

For the work of Refuge, see https://www.refuge.org.uk/

A press release relating to the 2020 Bill is at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/domestic-abuse-bill

Further documents relating to the Bill are at https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/domesticabuse.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

May 21, 2020 at 12:30 pm

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (2) Virtual hearings and on-line courts

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Almost exactly a year ago (May 2 2019) I noted in this blog the introduction of the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill. This was to be an important staging post in the process of reforming Courts and Tribunals, to enable more hearings and other proceedings to be on-line. The Bill would have provided for the creation of a new Procedure Committee to deal with how such hearings and other proceedings should take place. The Bill fell when the General Election held 2019 was announced.

Nevertheless, far from derailing the Government’s reform plans, the Covid 19 pandemic has done more to speed up progress towards the development of new online courts than might have been imagined. Although the Online Procedure Bill has not, to date, been introduced, the Coronavirus Act 2020 has effectively stepped in. For as long as the Act is in force (the legislation is time-limited to 2 years), it provides for the transformation of ways in which courts and tribunals are to be run. It does this by disapplying or amending existing legislation regulating a large number of aspects of public policy.

Sections 53 to 57 and Schedules 23 – 27 of the Coronavirus Act deal with the use of video and audio technology in Courts and Tribunals. I do not propose to go through these provisions in detail. But it worth setting out the policy objectives of these provisions. I have adapted these from the Explanatory Notes to the Act:

1. [Although] the courts currently have various statutory and inherent powers which enable them to make use of technology, the Act amends existing legislation so as to enable the use of technology either in video/audio-enabled hearings in which one or more participants appear before the court using a live video or audio link, or by a wholly video/audio hearing where there is no physical courtroom and all participants take part in the hearing using telephone or video conferencing facilities.

2. Provisions are also made within the Act to enable the public to see and hear proceedings which are held fully by video link or fully by audio link. This enables criminal, family and civil courts and tribunals to make directions to live stream a hearing which is taking place in this manner.

3. There are existing restrictions on photography and sound recording in physical courts. (Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 provides prohibitions on photography in courts. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 prohibits the making of unauthorised sound recordings.) These offences were created to protect participants in court proceedings, but long before the concept of a virtual hearing was thought possible. Provisions in the Act therefore create similar offences to protect participants and prohibit recording or transmitting live-streamed proceedings, photography and sound recordings in the context of virtual hearings and live-links.

4. The Act provides for restrictions to be imposed on individuals who are potentially infectious and that the decision to impose such restrictions can be appealed to magistrates’ court. The Act therefore ensures that such hearings should be conducted fully by video link, unless the court directs otherwise, given the person appealing the decision would be subject to restrictions, and there is the risk of passing on the infection if they were to travel to court.

Although these specific provisions will, I hope, have a limited shelf life, they are having the effect that, like it or not, judges, legal practitioners and other court and tribunal users are being forced to use these new technologies.

There have been sporadic reports in the professional legal press and elsewhere that, actually, many really like the new ways of doing business and are surprised how well they work. Others, particularly where the technology does not work as it should, are less enthusiastic.

But the champions of reform among the judiciary and policymakers clearly see these currently emergency procedures as a really valuable practical testbed and the precursor to significantly more substantial reform in the years ahead.

The Act can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/contents/enacted

A useful report on these matters from Susan Acland-Hood, who is leading the Courts and Tribunals reform programme, was published on 30 April 2020 and is available at https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2020/04/30/using-remote-hearings-to-maintain-justice-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

See international developments at the website: https://remotecourts.org/

Changing the Court and Tribunal estate – revised principles 2019

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Introduction

The court and tribunal estate has changed significantly since 2010. In making its changes, the Ministry of Justice applied a number of key principles: maintaining access to justice, delivering value for money, and ensuring operational efficiency. Savings achieved are being used to finance reform of the Courts and Tribunals service. The reform programme will change the ways court and tribunal services are delivered. In particular, improved technology will be designed to enable people to access justice in simpler, easier and swifter ways. Provision for hearings in courtrooms will remain essential for the delivery of justice, but fewer interactions with the court and tribunals system are likely to happen in a courtroom.

Nonetheless, court closures are controversial. Many involve much-loved local historic buildings. Many complain about the time needed to get to an alternative court/tribunal building if an existing venue is shut. In 2018, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on the principles in should adopt in relation to any further closures it might argue are necessary. In ‘Fit for the Future: Transforming the Court and Tribunal Estate’, published in May 2019, the Government set out its response to this consultation.

The Government has stated “We need to consider further court closures in the context of our modernisation approach, which will ensure that we provide fair and proportionate access to justice. We expect an increase in the number of people using remote access to the courts which will reduce the use of court and tribunal buildings in the future. We make a commitment that we will not act on that assumption by proposing to close courts unless we have sound evidence that the reforms are actually reducing the use of those buildings.”

Travel time

The issue that worried respondents most was how the time of travel to and from court was being assessed. The Ministry had proposed that the benchmark should be an ability to get there and return home within a day. Respondents argued this was too vague. The Ministry of Justice has responded: “ We have therefore enhanced our principles to make it clear that we expect journeys to court to be reasonable, and set out that for the overwhelming majority of users a reasonable journey would be one that allowed them to leave home no earlier than 7.30am, attend their hearing, and return home by 7.30pm the same day, and by public transport where necessary. We have also set out in much greater detail how we will measure this, what other factors we will consider – for example, the circumstances of users including those that are vulnerable, and the mitigations we can apply when users have difficulty attending court.”

Court/tribunal buildings design

While people were broadly positive about proposals regarding the design of court and tribunal buildings, there was a clear message that the security of those who use and work in our courts and tribunals needs to be paramount, along with ensuring suitable facilities for vulnerable users. The Court and Tribunal Design Guide (published at www.gov.uk/government/publications/court-and-tribunal-design-guide) provides a flexible room design which includes enhanced security standards and provides for the needs of vulnerable victims and witnesses.

Digital support officers

Digital Support Officers will support the introduction and longer-term support for digital services in local courts, as well as support which will assist users who do not wish or are unable to access online services. This development was broadly welcomed. There were concerns regarding the resourcing of these services. The Ministry has stated that it “will ensure that the right number of staff support these activities.”

Future closures

The Ministry expects that increased use of digital services will mean that fewer court and tribunals hearings will be needed in a traditional courtroom setting, and therefore fewer buildings will be needed. However, “we are committed to having clear evidence that these reductions are happening before we decide to close any further sites.”

Revised estates principles

“• Everyone who needs to access the court and tribunal estate should be able to do so. Journey times to court should be reasonable and take into account the different needs and circumstances of those using the courts. Mitigations are available for those who experience difficulty attending court.

  • We want to make sure that our buildings are in the best condition possible for those that use them and that they can be maintained at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.
  • We will focus on the provision of multijurisdictional centres which are able to provide flexible access for the people who use our courts and tribunals. We will harness the power of technology to offer enhanced access and greater flexibility.”

Comment

Revised statements of principle will not prevent future controversy. Indeed, at the end of October 2019, the Justice Select Committee issued a very critical report on the whole court reform programme in general and the court closure programme in particular. There have been many critical comments in the professional legal press.

My own view is that the court/tribunal reform programme will, in time, be an improvement on the present system. However as all those who come into contact with courts and tribunals will have to adapt to the new system, there will be nervousness ahead of proposed changes that have not yet been implemented.

The item is adapted from https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/fit-for-the-future-transforming-the-court-and-tribunal-estate which sets out both the original consultation paper and the Government’s response.

The Justice Committee critique is at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201920/cmselect/cmjust/190/19003.htm

Reviewing the Criminal Legal Aid fee schemes

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There is increasing recognition that the criminal legal aid scheme is not delivering an adequate service for the Criminal Justice system. Practitioners have long argued that cuts have gone too far; there have been strikes, threats of strikes and last minute deals cobbled together to try to stop the wheels falling off the bus completely.

In December 2018 the Government announced that there would be a more fundamental review of the criminal legal aid scheme.

More detail about the scope of the review was announced in March 2019. Thus the review will consider criminal legal aid throughout the life cycle of a criminal case, including:

  • pre-charge advice at the police station, advice and advocacy services in the Magistrates’ Court and Youth Court, and advice and advocacy for prisoners
  • advice and litigation services in the Crown Court through the Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS)
  • advocacy services in the Crown Court through the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS)
  • litigation and advocacy services for very high cost Crown Court cases though the Very High Cost Case (VHCC) Scheme

The review will also consider wider changes to the justice, social, economic, business and technological landscape that are impacting on the criminal legal aid system – including, but not limited to:

  • Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) reform, including the digitisation of the criminal trial process;
  • the Attorney General’s review of disclosure of evidence, and the need to prevent trials collapsing because of failure to disclose evidence; and
  • wider modernisation work being pursued by the Home Office and the police.

The Government has stated that the overall objectives of the review are:

(1) To reform the criminal legal aid fee schemes so that they:

  • fairly reflect, and pay for, work done
  • support the sustainability of the market, including recruitment, retention, and career progression within the professions and a diverse workforce
  • support just, efficient, and effective case progression, limit perverse incentives, and ensure value for money for the taxpayer
  • are consistent with and, where appropriate enable, wider reforms
  • are simple and place proportionate administrative burdens on providers, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), and other government departments and agencies
  • ensure cases are dealt with by practitioners with the right skills and experience

(2) To reform the wider criminal legal aid market to ensure that the provider market:

  • responds flexibly to changes in the wider system, pursues working practices and structures that drive efficient and effective case progression, and delivers value for money for the taxpayer
  • operates to ensure that legal aid services are delivered by practitioners with the right skills and experience
  • operates to ensure the right level of legal aid provision and to encourage a diverse workforce.

The plan is to produce a report by the end of Summer 2020.

As part of this peogramme the Crown Prosecution Service has  been undertaking work to develop proposals for the remuneration of prosecution lawyers. It plans to finish this work by the end of September 2019.

As interim measures, the CPS has proposed changes to fees payable to prosecutors to be implmented from 1 Sept 2019. In addition, the Ministry of Justiice has agreed with the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council that the elements of the review will be accelerated:

  • consideration of the issue of unused material;
  • fees paid for cracked trials; and
  • uplifts in paper-heavy cases.

The intention is for interim proposals to be made by the end of September. The impact of the prorogation of Parliament and the possibility of a General Election may alter these timings.

Details about these developments may be found at:

For the overall review https://www.gov.uk/guidance/criminal-legal-aid-review#history

For the CPS work see https://www.cps.gov.uk/cps/news/proposal-between-crown-prosecution-service-ministry-justice-attorney-general-criminal-bar

 

 

Written by lwtmp

September 19, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Unduly lenient sentences: scheme extension

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For many years, the victims of a number of serious crimes have been able to make an application to the Solicitor General that the sentence imposed in their case was too lenient. Crimes such as murder, robbery, and a range of terror offences were covered by the scheme.

If the Solicitor General agrees he/she may refer the case to the Court of Appeal for a reconsideration of the sentence. In 2018, around 100 convicted criminals had their sentences increased under this scheme.

In its Victims Strategy, published in November 2018, the Government stated that it would review the scheme to see whether it should be extended to more offences.

The Government has announced (September 2019) that there should be an extension of the scheme to 14 further offences, including offences of controlling and coercive behaviour, as well as child sexual abuse offences, such as those involving the taking, distributing and publishing of indecent images of children and abusing a position of trust with a child.

Implementation of these decisions requires the approval of secondary legislation which is expected in the autumn 2019.

Further details of the changes is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-victims-able-to-challenge-unduly-lenient-prison-sentences.

The Victims Strategy 2018 was noted in this blog on 29 November 2018

Written by lwtmp

September 19, 2019 at 9:58 am

New Victims’ Commissioner appointed

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In June 2019, Dame Vera Baird replaced Baroness Newlove as the Victim’s Commissioner. Her appointment is for 3 years.

See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dame-vera-baird-appointed-as-new-victims-commissioner

Written by lwtmp

September 16, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Chapter 5

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Dealing with domestic abuse: draft Bill published

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Given all the time and attention devoted to Brexit, it is perhaps not surprising that other important policy initiatives have not been achieving the publicity they deserve. A good example of this was the publication, in January 2019, of a draft Domestic Abuse Bill.

Domestic abuse is a cruel and complex crime that can affect anyone. It leaves physical and emotional scars that can last a lifetime. It also places a considerable demand on public services. Home Office research estimates the economic and social costs of domestic abuse to society to be £66 billion for victims in 2016 to 2017.

A consultation, launched in March 2018  asked questions on how policy should develop to achieve 4 main objectives:

  • promote awareness – to  raise public and professional awareness
  • protect and support – to enhance the safety of victims and the support that they receive
  • transform the justice process – to prioritise victim safety in the criminal and family courts, and review the perpetrator journey from identification to rehabilitation
  • improve performance – to drive consistency and better performance in the response to domestic abuse across all local areas, agencies and sectors.

Following the consultation, the Government has defined 9 measures that require legislative change – which is the focus of the draft Bill. They are:

  • create a statutory definition of domestic abuse
  • establish the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and set out the commissioner’s functions and powers
  • provide for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order
  • prohibit perpetrators of domestic and other forms of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts (and prevent victims from having to cross-examine their abusers) and give the court discretion to prevent cross-examination in person where it would diminish the quality of the witness’s evidence or cause the witness significant distress
  • create a statutory presumption that complainants of an offence involving behaviour that amounts to domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal courts
  • enable high-risk domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody
  • place the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme on a statutory footing
  • ensure that, where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy), this must be a secure lifetime tenancy
  • extend the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts in England and Wales to further violent and sexual offences.

As the Bill has been published in draft, it is unlikely to become law until 2020 at the earliest.

For further detail see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-consultation-response-and-draft-bill

The Home Office research is at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-economic-and-social-costs-of-domestic-abuse

Information on the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme and related guidance (which was updated in December 2016) is available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/575361/DVDS_guidance_FINAL_v3.pdf

 

 

Written by lwtmp

March 15, 2019 at 10:27 am

Criminal Injuries Compensation: Abolition of the ‘same roof’ rule

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At the end of February 2019, the Government announced that it was introducing a measure to amend the criminal juries compensation scheme. The amendment would abolish the rule that a victim could not claim compensation under the scheme where he/she lived under the same roof at the perpetrator.

The ‘same roof rule’ was part of the original scheme introduced in 1964 and was intended to ensure perpetrators would not benefit from compensation paid to victims they lived with.

It was amended in October 1979 so future victims could claim compensation if they no longer lived with their attacker and were unlikely to do so again. However, as is common with many changes to the law, this was not made retrospective – which meant some victims may have missed out on compensation if they were a victim of a violent crime before the law change.

A statutory instrument, laid in Parliament on 28 Feb 2019, will remove the pre-1979 rule completely – enabling more victims access to compensation.

Ministers had recognised the rule’s unfair impact on victims of crimes such as child sexual abuse. The move will amend the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme so that all victims abused by someone they lived with can reapply for compensation – regardless of when the attack took place.

It will mean that victims who may not have come forward because of the rule, or were previously denied awards under it, will be eligible to claim compensation – with awards being made to those who meet the Scheme’s other criteria.

The ongoing review of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, which will report later in 2019, will look at, among other things, concerns around the eligibility rules, the definition of ‘violent crime’, and the type of injuries that are covered.

See press announcement https://www.gov.uk/government/news/access-to-compensation-scheme-for-victims-who-lived-with-their-attacker

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

March 14, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Transformation: Courts and Tribunals, 2022: HMCTS and MoJ respond to the Public Accounts Committee

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I noted in 2018 the critical report from the National Audit Office (see this blog June 2018) and the subsequent report (which I labelled ‘brutal’) from the Public Accounts Committee (see this blog October 2018) on the courts and tribunals transformation programme.

Well, now the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service have come back with a series of replies, setting out the progress that has been made with the transformation programme, and setting out targets for the following 6 months.

Between November 2018 and February 2019, MoJ and HMCTS published no fewer than 6 reports, each one responding individually to the six principal criticisms made by the Public Accounts Committee.

The most fundamental question is whether the timeframe for the delivery of the transformation programme is being adhered to. The report on Recommendation 1 – which deals with this question – acknowledges that parts of the programme have not yet been started while listing a substantial body of completed work.

Other responses deal with:

  • the impact of the transformation programme on users;
  • engagement with stakeholders;
  • the financial implications of the transformation programme on the wider justice system;
  • evaluating the impact of the reform programme on access to justice and the fairness of the justice system; and
  • balancing the portfolio of change projects to ensure that there is some flexibility and an ability to respond to financial pressures.

Interestingly, less than a month after the publication of the latest of these reports a Press Release in March stated that at least some aspects of the Transformation programme will not be completed until 2023. (See https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/breaking-hmcts-delays-1bn-courts-reform-by-a-year/5069501.article)

There is a lot of detail in the reports. They can be found by going to https://www.gov.uk/government/news/response-to-public-accounts-committee-transforming-courts-and-tribunals

This links to each of the six individual responses.

In January 2019, the Justice Select Committee announced that it too would be conducting an inquiry into the Courts and Tribunals Reform programme. See https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/court-and-tribunals-reform-inquiry-17-19/

It is right that such a major reform programme should be carefully scrutinised by MPs. They can help to ensure that the transformation, that I think is needed, is delivered.

 

 

 

 

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/