Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

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Transforming the Justice system – views from the National Audit Office

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In this blog, I have tried to keep readers abreast of developments with the major Transformation of the Justice system programme. I have observed that this is not always easy and depends on keeping an eye out for press releases, blogs and now the new monthly e-bulletin issued by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

In May 2018, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its first appraisal of how the programme is going.

Obviously the NAO is supportive of the aims of the programme, which it summarises as follows:

In 2016, HMCTS set up a portfolio of change programmes that will introduce

new technology and working practices to modernise and upgrade the justice system.

By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 5,000 fewer staff, reduce the number of
cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million cases per year and reduce annual
spending by £265 million. Savings will come from lower administrative and judicial staff costs, fewer physical hearings and running a smaller estate. As well as making savings HMCTS expects the reformed system to work better for all those involved, use court time more proportionately, and make processes more accessible to users.

The NAO report helpfully reminds readers of the scale and scope of the overall programme:

The HMCTS change portfolio consists of several related programmes, which in turn
are made up of many individual projects. The major programmes are:
• The HMCTS Reform Programme which is modernising processes and systems
to reduce demand on courts by moving activity out of courtrooms. For example,
it will introduce online services and digital case files and expand the use of video
technology in hearings.
• The Common Platform Programme which is developing shared processes
and a digital criminal justice case management system to share information
between HMCTS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. It is jointly
managed by these organisations.
• The Transforming Compliance and Enforcement Programme (TCEP) which
is upgrading systems in HMCTS’s National Compliance and Enforcement Service,
used to enforce court orders such as penalties and compensation.
As part of these programmes, HMCTS is also reducing and modernising the
court and tribunal estate and creating cross-jurisdictional hearing centres and national ‘customer service centres’. These will centralise case management and administration and provide support to the public, judges and lawyers on civil and criminal matters.
The NAO makes some rather obvious observations:

1 The scope of the programme is challenging

2 The timetable has been expanded

3 The scope of some projects has been reduced

4 Progress has been slower than expected

5 Costs have risen and likely benefits decreased

6 There remain funding gaps for the later stages.

The NAO notes that many of these points have been taken on board within HMCTS. Nonetheless, the NAO argues that more should be done to demonstrate in detail how the reformed system will work. It states that it is important to sustain the committment of all those involved in the design and delivery of the new service. It implicitly criticises the Ministry of Justice for its failure to reintroduce the legislation that will be needed to ensure that aspects of the reform programme can be implemented. The NAO warns that the scale and spped of change may result in changes having unexpected consequences. And as much of the anticipated savings arise from reductions in staff, this could actually lead to an inability to deliver the service.

The public response of HMCTS has been upbeat – as indeed it has to be. A Press Release acknowledges that the programme is challenging; it summarises a number of specific changes that have been delivered; and remains confident that the programme will be successfully delivered.

My own view is that it is very important that the transformation programme is delivered. But the managerial challenge of delivering a large scale change should not be underestimated. To date, key judicial figures have been working with HMCTS to promote the need for and advantages of change. Continued judicial leadership will be essential. But I think it would be wise to develop a wider group of ‘change champions’, particularly within the judiciary more broadly and from  the legal professions. Many practitioners will accept that the current system does not serve the public well. Many will have good ideas for how things could be done more efficiently and to greater public benefit. Giving them the encouragement to voice their support for change would be highly desirable.

The NAO report is at https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Early-progess-in-transforming-courts-and-tribunals.pdf.

The HMTCS Press release is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hmcts-response-to-national-audit-office-report-on-court-reform-programme?utm_medium=email&utm_source=

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Keeping up to date with the Transformation of our Justice System project

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I have commented before that it is quite hard for those outside Government and the Judiciary to keep abreast of developments with the Transformation project. Occasional blog items from HM Courts and Tribunals service are useful but don’t necessarily pick up all that is going on.

I therefore welcome the announcement that from June there is to be a monthly e-bulletin devoted to the programme. Those interested are able to subscribe to the service, thereby receiving regular updates.

The first edition is available at https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKHMCTS/bulletins/1f03e7b

The Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill 2018

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The great Transformation of the Justice System programme, being advanced by the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service was initially supported, legislatively, by a substantial Prisons and Courts Bill 2017. This fell when the General Election was called in June 2017. (See this Blog,  March 2017 and July 2017). Since then, legal system watchers have been awaiting the return of the Bill, either in its original form or in a new guise.

Our patience is now at least partially rewarded with the publication of the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill 2018, which was introduced into the House of Lords at the end of May 2018. As its title suggests, this is not the full legislative package originally envisaged. Rather it is a short, 4 clause Bill  Iwith Schedue) which proposes measures to facilitate the more flexible deployment of judicial and other staff.

Once enacted, the judiciary will be flexibly deployed across jurisdictions, allowing judges to gain experience of different types of cases, helping with their career progression. It will also enable judges to be used in specific courts or tribunals where there are serious backlogs of cases.

As regards the taking over of tasks currently undertaken by judges, authorised staff could carry out some of the more straightforward judicial functions, including tasks like issuing a summons; taking a plea; extending time for service of applications; or considering applications for variations of directions made in private or public law  children  cases. One noteworthy measure is that the role of the Justices’ Clerk, currently a statutory one, will become non-statutory. This will enable them to give advice on law in the Family Court as well as in the Magistrates’ Court.

Details of the Bill are at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2017-2019/0108/lbill_2017-20190108_en_2.htm#sch1

Written by lwtmp

June 4, 2018 at 1:59 pm

Transforming the Justice system – case studies

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It is quite hard for those outside the justice system to know exactly what is going on with the overall transformation programme. But a source of really interesting material is Tribunals Journal published 3 times a year by the Judicial College. (I declare an interest – I have just been appointed to its editorial Board.)

The latest edition, published in December 2017, contains a number of interesting case studies on developments which are relevant to the transformation programme. The following items are particularly worth noting.

Lorna Findlay, who is an Employment Judge, was an early volunteer to receive training to entitle her to sit as a judge in the county court. ) One of the transformation programme’s central goals is the creation of ‘one judiciary’ whereby judges can be deployed to different areas of work.. The author describes the basic training she received and the shadowing she undertook before she started sitting as a District Judge on civil matters. Her overall impression was that the essential features of the judicial role were the same whether in the ET or in the county court.

She felt that her experience in the ET gave her more confidence in handling litigants in person, who appear more often in the tribunal, than some of her civil judicial colleagues. At the same time, she thought that procedural rules in the county court, which enable judges to give only brief summaries of key facts and grounds for decision, should be brought into the Employment Tribunal rules – ET decisions are currently notoriously and unnecessarily long in her view.

Sian Davies, another ET judge based in Wales, described a pioneering initiative to assist litigants in person. The aim was to find a way for the ET itself to be able to signpost litigants in person to sources of assistance that might help them frame and argue their cases. The obvious challenge is that the ET must not appear to be taking sides. But with the reduction in the availability of legal aid, the tribunal argued that new ways of trying to assist should be developed. One outcome has been the creation of an ET Litigants in Person Scheme, in which volunteers – acting pro bono – offer advice and assistance to parties before the tribunal. These are based in the London Central ET and Cardiff.

Meleri Tudur writes about the use of registrars and now tribunal case workers to undertake some of the more routine paperwork that historically had been undertaken by the judiciary. In some cases this had led to a significant reduction in the amount of time taken by judges on what is known as ‘box work’.

To me, these are all examples of initiatives designed to make the existing courts and tribunals service more responsive to the needs of users. Tribunals Journal should be essential reading, not just for the tribunal judiciary, but for those involved in the reform of the justice system.

The Winter 2017 number of Tribunals Journal can be found at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/tribunals-journal-winter-2017.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equal treatment: Guidance from the Judicial College

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It should go without saying that, particularly in the legal arena, those who take part in proceedings before courts and tribunals need to feel that they have been treated equally.

This is, of course, easier said than done, as David Lammy’s report on the Criminal Justice System, published in 2017 showed. (See this blog 29 Sept 2017). But for many years first the Judicial Studies Board and now the Judicial College have offered guidance to judges (and by extension to others involved in the justice system) about the best ways to try to ensure that people are treated fairly.

Much of this focusses on the language that judges and others involved in the justice system use generally (for example in relation to litigants in person) and in relation to those from specific sectors of society, who may be defined by their religion, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, mental or physical disabilities, their gender.

In February 2018, the Judicial College published an on-line updated revision to its ‘Equal Treatment Bench Book’. Bench books were originally devised as a handy guide to key issues which could sit on the judge’s desk, available for him to refer to it that seemed necessary.

I am not sure whether this particular Bench Book can be used in this way. For one thing, it is very long – well over 400 pages. And the issues raised are such that I would have thought judges would need to have considered them before a case or other proceedings have started. (It would not be desirable for a judge to stop in the middle of a sentence in order to look up how a particular person should be addressed.)

But I don’t agree, as some comments in the press have suggested, that the Equal Treatment Bench Book is an example of political correctness gone mad. It seems to me to be an honourable attempt to raise questions and address issues that arise in practice but that many judges may not have thought about before. (Indeed, I think there are some parts of the book that would be of interest to a wider readership.)

I set out the link to the text here, and invite readers to take a look at the Book and come to their own view on its value.

See https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/equal-treatment-bench-book-february-v6-2018.pdf

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

April 4, 2018 at 3:19 pm

Practitioners and academics: new alliances

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In my book Introduction to the English Legal System, I argue that legal academics play an important role in the development of our understanding of the law and that their role should be given more recognition than it sometimes has had in the past. (See Chapter 9, section 9.10).

Recently, however, my interest has been stimulated by stories in the professional legal press concerning a rather different collaboration between the world of legal practice and the academic world.

A number of firms, particularly those engaged in personal injury litigation, have been working with academic statisticians  and ‘decision scientists’ to try to understand what are the variables that are in play when litigation is under consideration and thus trying to understand better the risks of taking particular cases on and to predict better the potential outcome of issues that are being litigated. This may help practitioners to decide whether a case should settle, or be fought through to trial.

The firms concerned think this may be beneficial both for small value large volume groups of claims, as well as high value claims. One finding that has emerged from this work is that the models that are being used  suggest that the upper level of the Judicial College Guidelines on damages for different types of injury is almost irrelevant in most cases.

It is possible that this approach might also be used by the Courts and Tribunals service to analyse cases that pass through the courts. It might help, for example, in making determinations on which cases might be suitable for the small claims track or the fast track in the allocation of civil disputes in the county court – a possibility hinted at by Sir Ernest Ryder in a recent speech where he said:

Digitisation will, if we are sensible, provide us with the opportunity to gather data on the operation of our justice systems in ways that we have often been unable to before. It provides us with the opportunity to make our justice systems more adaptive; but again, only after proper scrutiny and discussion.

It seems to me that these initiatives will grow in number in the near future. What will be needed is proper evaluation of these tools to see whether they do in fact assist in both legal and judicial practice, and how they might be developed.

For press reports on these initiatives see https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/hodge-jones-allen-embraces-predictive-modelling-pi-work; and https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/leading-law-firm-joins-forces-lse-professors-find-ways-predict-litigation.

Sir Ernest Ryder’s speech is at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ryder-spt-open-justice-luxembourg-feb-2018.pdf

 

Going digital – piloting video hearings

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The Transforming our Justice System reform programme has flagged the possibility of much more use of digital technology in the processing and handling of disputes. Following the announcement at the beginning of February 2018 that it is now possible to start divorce proceedings on-line (see this blog for 2 Feb 2018), we now have a new announcement about how cases might be heard using new technologies

This development, announced on 15 February 2018, concerns the piloting of video hearings in the Tax Tribunal. This initiative will be rolled out in a measured way, with potential participants being asked whether they would like their cases to be dealt with on-line.

It seems that the Tax Tribunal has been chosen for this experiment as it is presumed that many tax cases turn on rather complex points of law, rather than major disputes on questions of fact which might require the presence of parties in the same room.

This new announcement builds on another pilot, which ran in the autumn of 2017 in which a number of case management hearings in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber were dealt with through video hearings. The results of these seem to have been very positive and demonstrate that such issues can be dealt with more efficiently on-line without compromising standards of justice.

HMCTS do seem to be taking a measured approach to these developments, wanting to bring all those involved – judges, practitioners and litigants – with them, to ensure that these developments do meet user needs.

Further announcements will emerge in the months ahead.

To read more about the video Tax Hearing pilot, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/video-hearing-pilot-launched.

For the HMCTS blog on these developments go to https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2018/02/15/video-hearings-can-make-a-difference-for-court-and-tribunal-users/

 

 

Written by lwtmp

February 21, 2018 at 11:28 am