Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘chapter 7’ Category

End of the 2019-2021 Parliamentary Session: legislative and other outcomes

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It feels as though the 2019-2021 Parliamentary session, which started immediately after the election of the Boris Johnson Government and has just come to an end has gone on for ever. The dramas of Brexit were anticipated; those of the Covid-19 pandemic were certainly not. This note looks at some of the key outcomes from this session, in particular those that impact on my book, Introduction to the English Legal System, the 15th edition of which will be published soon.

As I have written before, despite all the attention and time that needed to be spent on dealing with the pandemic, four important pieces of legislation managed to get through the Parliamentary process.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 and the Sentencing Act passed in 2020. Both have been considered in these notes and are included in the new edition of the Book.

Two other important pieces of legislation completed their parliamentary journey in the dying days of the 2019-2021 session.

First is the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which should have a major impact on how domestic abuse is dealt with by the police, social authorities and the courts. I have written about this legislation before (see 15 March 2019, 21 May 2020, and 23 July 2020). A Press Release summarizing the key features of the new Act – which has taken a long time to reach the statute book – is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-domestic-abuse-bill-receives-royalassent .

The other Act which should be noted here is the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act 2021, about which I have also written before (on 22 July 2020). This is designed to strengthen provisions relating to the detention and monitoring of those convicted of terrorist offences. See the press release at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/longer-jail-terms-and-stricter-monitoring-as-new-terror-laws-gain-royal-assent for a brief overview of this Act.

This Act needs to be kept distinct from the quite separate Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This was not introduced into Parliament until March 2021. It has already attracted considerable public attention, with demonstrations against the Bill being held in many cities throughout the country.

The Bill picks up proposals in the Smarter Approach to Sentencing White Paper, about which I wrote here on 9 October 2020. But it also reflects earlier Conservative Party manifesto pledges. An extremely helpful background note, setting out both the origins of the Bill and it principal features can be found in the House of Commons Library Research Briefing at https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9158/ which was published in March 2021.

Media headlines are focused on issues relating to powers to limit the right to protest peacefully, but there is a great deal more in this wide-ranging Bill. This Bill will be brought back to Parliament once the new 2021-2022 session gets under way.

Also worth mentioning in this context is the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020. This provides for major changes to the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies, to try to ensure that there is approximately the same number of voters in each constituency. This is an idea that has been around for some time – originally linked with proposals to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons. This aspect of the changes has been abandoned. The work of redrawing the boundaries will be undertaken by the Boundary Commissions – one each for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Final reports are due by 1 July 2023. See further https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-law-passed-will-make-voting-in-uk-general-election-fairer

What the legislative landscape for the next 12 months will look like will become clearer after the Queen’s Speech, which will be delivered on 11 May 2021. This will be the subject of a separate note.

Reform of the justice system: update on progress

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Those who are following the progress of the programme to change the ways in which the justice system works might care to look at the presentation delivered to the 4th Annual Users Conference.

Online sessions were spread across three days (3, 4, 5 November 2020) and covered the work of criminal, civil, family, tribunals and cross-jurisdictional reform projects over the past 12 months, a year that has been significantly impacted by the need to respond to the pandemic.

Readers can access the main speeches at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/civil-justice-councils-9th-national-forum-on-access-to-justice-for-those-without-means/

This links to the principal speeches which are on YouTube.

Further information and powerpoint presentation can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hmcts-heads-online-for-2020-public-user-event#history

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (14) – Family Justice

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As with all parts of the English Legal system, the family justice system has had to cope with the effects of Covid-19. A new report from the Nuffield Justice Family Justice Observatory takes a fresh look at how the system has been coping – in particular with the use of remote (where both parties are not in court) and hybrid (where one party is in court) hearings. It is based on a survey of 1300 people involved in family law cases, undertaken in September 2020. It is a follow-up to their first snapshot survey undertaken in April 2020. (see https://martinpartington.com/2020/07/07/covid-19-and-the-english-legal-system-10-family-justice/)

This second survey and accompanying report shows that “most professionals (86%) felt that things were working more smoothly and some reported benefits to working remotely, for both parties and themselves.” However, “[t]hey shared concerns about the difficulties of being sufficiently empathetic, supportive and attuned to lay parties when conducting hearings remotely’. Nonetheless “more than three quarters (78%) felt that fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases they were involved with most or all of the time”.

When it came to how parents and relatives themselves felt. “a majority… (88%) reported having concerns about the way their case was dealt with, and two thirds (66%) felt that their case had not been dealt with well. Two in five (40%) said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing”.

As might be anticipated, there were complaints about problems with connectivity. And there was a feeling that for remote hearings telephone links were not as satisfactory as video links.

The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew Macfarlane has welcomed the report and undertaken to ensure that the issues raised are addressed.

One specific point made by the Nuffield authors is that they do not expect any early change to practices currently in use to deal with the implications of Covid 19. Because of the urgency of many of the issues which which the family court has to deal, it is essential that all those involved continue to work to improve what is currently happening. Of course, the longer this goes on, the more evidence can be obtained about what works well in the new system as well as what does not work well. I am sure that, after Covid-19, the system as a whole will not return to its pre-pandemic state.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Report and Consultation are at https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/remote-hearings-september-2020.

Sir Andrew Macfalane’s comments are at: https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/remote-hearings-in-the-family-justice-system-follow-up-consultation-report/

Written by lwtmp

November 1, 2020 at 11:31 am

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (13): Justice Committee reports on the impact on the Courts and on the Legal Profession

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I have noted before that a number of Parliamentary Committees are examining aspects of the impact of Covid 19. The Justice Committee is in the middle of publishing a series of reports on this question. The first two of these, on Courts and on the Legal Profession have been published (30 July 2020 and 3 Aug 2020).

Both reports are, inevitably, in the nature of interim reports – given that we are still in the middle of a crisis, the outcome of which is far from clear.

The first report, on the Courts, takes up the widespread criticism that there were already considerable backlogs and unacceptable delays in the criminal justice system which have been exacerbated by the arrival of Covid 19.

The Committee notes that measures being put in place to improve the performance of the Crown Courts include a possible increase in the number of sitting days and the opening of the (temporary) Nightingale Courts – specially adapted spaces in which criminal trials can be dealt with.

As regards Magistrates’ Courts,  the Committee found that the end of May 2020, there were 416,600 outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts, which is the highest backlog in recent years. (The backlog previously peaked at 327,000 outstanding cases in 2015.) By mid-June, the figure was even higher. HMCTS has promised a ‘recovery plan’; the Committee states that it looks forward to seeing it.

By contrast with the criminal justice system, the civil, administrative and family systems have fared relatively better. Much of this has been the result of the ability of the courts and tribunals service to move hearings online. The Committee repeats concerns raised elsewhere, for example about enabling those who find it hard to use IT to participate, and that some types of family dispute are hard to deal with online.

The Committee stresses the importance of HMCTS undertaking proper evaluations of the impact of these new procedures on users of the system. It also emphasises that changes in practice arising out of the need to respond to the pandemic should not be adopted on a permanent basis, without more evaluation and consultation.

The Justice Committee report on the impact on the legal profession is not as general as its title might suggest. It focusses primarily on the impact on legal aid practitioners and other advice agencies, arguing that they continue to need financial support if the provision of services – particularly in criminal cases – is not to be lost.

The Committee’s report on the impact of Covid 19 on the Courts is at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmjust/519/51905.htm

Their report on the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession is at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmjust/520/52003.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video Hearings Process Evaluation

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One of the many developments included in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Transformation programme is greater use of remote hearings. Two researchers at the London School of Economics were commissioned to make an independent evaluation of the use of remote hearings. Their findings were published on 29 July 2020.

The report examined the development, implementation, and user experience of the video hearings service and platform across four different hearing types in the civil, family, and tax jurisdictions: Set Aside Judgments, First Direction Appointments, Short Notice Hearings, and Basic Tax Appeals. These were issues which judges in the pilot centres (Birmingham and Manchester) thought suitable for remote hearings.

Methods involved a combination of observation, semi-structured interviews, and analysis of HMCTS documentation. However, the sample of hearings studied was small – just 23 in total.

Some of the research findings might have been predicted: some hearings were subject to technical glitches; judges did not have all the kit (especially a second screen) they would like; they probably needed some more training.

From my perspective, the most interesting findings of the research related to the user experience. The summary states:

Most users commented on the convenience of having a video hearing and the time and cost it saved them. Some users also reported reduced stress and anxiety due to being able to take part in a hearing from their home or from their solicitors office.

Legal professionals felt the cases selected for the pilot were appropriate and also recognised this option as a benefit for parties.

Users reported finding their video hearing easy, effective and straightforward. However, some recognised a challenge with communicating over video and felt that it might be difficult for people who are not familiar with or do not have
access to the suitable technology.

Users maintained the view that pre-hearing support was highly valuable and helped them navigate the technology on the day of their hearing. All users were highly satisfied with how the judge managed the hearing and the formality of the hearing.

Users who experienced technological issues did not report these as unmanageable and thought that judges dealt with any disruption effectively.

The cases used for this research were all dealt with pre-Covid-19. Since then the pace of change has increased and there has been a considerable rise in the numbers of cases being dealt with remotely. An evaluation of this new digital landscape will be published in due course.

While some may wish this, a return to the pre-Covid days is unlikely. A key challenge, however, will be to support those who find the technologies hard to manage; this has to be faced by those seeking to put more hearings on line.

The report, written by Meredith Rossner and Martha McCurdy, may be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hmcts-video-hearings-process-evaluation-phase-2-final-report

 

Written by lwtmp

August 1, 2020 at 12:53 pm

Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 goes to the Lords: Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts pilot announced

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Reforms in the ways in which cases involving domestic abuse are to be handled is another area of the current Government’s policy programme that is still being taken forward despite all the media attention on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. (There is of course a link in that reports of incidents of domestic abuse have risen substantially as a side effect of people being placed in lockdown as the first response to attempting to limit the impact of the pandemic.)

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 (noted in this blog (21 May 2020) has completed its journey through the House of Commons  on 6 July 2020. It has now been sent to the House of Lords where is received its formal first reading in the Lords the following day.

In my earlier blog I set out the primary objectives of the new bill, so will not repeat them here. There are, however, still concerns about the scope of the bill. In particular, it is argued that people with unsettled immigration status (who are not permitted to have access to services provided through public funding) will remain at particular risk, despite the overall improvements to the system which will be introduced when the Bill becomes law. There are also concerns that levels of funding needed to ensure that services can be provided to the victisms of domestic violence and abuse will not be as generous as they should be.

Another development, which builds on the prospective changes in the Bill, was announced on 25 June 2020 when the Government published Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases. This was the report of an independent study, led by three leading family law academics, supported by 10 panel members drawn from the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary, social work, womens’ aid and Respect. Commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the report examined the experience of participants in private law children’s cases. (These are cases in which the parents of children take proceedings in order to determine arrangements relating to the custody of children.)

It consists of two significant documents:

  • the analysis of responses to a widespread consulation on the issue;
  • a detailed review of the existing published research on the issue.

The key issues that emerged from the consultation responses were:

  • a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised,
  • children’s voices not being heard,
  • allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved,
  • inadequate assessment of risk,
  • traumatic court processes,
  • perceived unsafe child arrangements, and
  • abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation.

These issues were underpinned by the following key themes in the evidence that was reviewed:

Resource constraints; resources available have been inadequate to keep up with increasing demand in private law children proceedings, and more parties are coming to court unrepresented.
The pro-contact culture; respondents felt that courts placed undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, which resulted in systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse.
Working in silos; submissions highlighted differences in approaches and culture between criminal justice, child protection (public law) and private law children proceedings, and lack of communication and coordination between family courts and other courts and agencies working with families, which led to contradictory decisions and confusion.
An adversarial system; with parents placed in opposition on what is often not a level playing field in cases involving domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and self-representation, with little or no involvement of the child.

A substantial list of recommendations was made to address these issues. The first of these related to the basic design principles for private law children’s proceedings. The panel stated that these principles should be:

  • A culture of safety and protection from harm
  • An approach which is investigative and problem solving
  • Resources which are sufficient and used more productively
  • With a more coordinated approach between the different parts of the system

Responding to the recommendations, the Government has announced an Implementation Plan. From a legal system perspective, the key decision is to start a pilot project of the ‘Integrated Domestic Abuse Court’.

Two different models will be tested and evaluated:

1. A ‘one family one judge’ approach in which certain concurrent family and criminal proceedings involving domestic abuse are heard by the same cross-ticketed judge, with the aim of reducing the need for victims to re-tell their stories and promoting a more joined up approach to the handling of such cases between the jurisdictions.

2. An ‘investigative’ approach to the family courts. This will explore ways to move away from the current ‘adversarial’ system to adopt … a more investigative approach [which] will focus on ways to improve gathering and assessing appropriate evidence. Specific emphasis will be placed on ensuring the voice of the child is heard effectively. [The Government] will seek to tackle problems more effectively through the better provision and signposting of support services, while a review stage during the pilot will aim to increase long term sustainability and reduce returns to court.

The Government intends to adopt a phased approach to both pilots. The first phase will involve a period of designing and small-scale trialling of potential solutions to aspects of the detailed pilot. This would be followed by the second phase, the full pilot of both approaches, the design of which will take account of the trial findings from the first phase.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents particular challenges to the immediate launch of this pilot. Both the family and criminal courts have had to alter drastically the way in which cases are processed at this time, and the results of any pilot undertaken in such circumstances are likely to be less representative and informative than they would usually be. In addition, courts and practitioners are under considerable pressure to ensure that as many cases as possible are heard at this time.

The Government therefore needs to keep the start date of the pilot under review dependent on the duration and impact of Covid-19, but will commence it as soon as it is practical and safe to do so. The Government will work with a range of stakeholders to develop the pilot plans further, and then publish additional information and a start date for Phase 1 as soon as the current situation permits.

For the version of the Domestic Abuse Bill which has gone to the House of Lords, see https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2019-21/domesticabuse.html

For the reports of the study Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, see https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/assessing-risk-of-harm-to-children-and-parents-in-private-law-children-cases#history

The Implementation Plan is also available at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/assessing-risk-of-harm-to-children-and-parents-in-private-law-children-cases#history

Transformation of the Justice System: reports on the progress of the HMCTS reform programme

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It is a some time since I wrote about the great Transformation of the Justice system programme that was launched in 2016. It is quite a challenge to follow the progress of the reform programme. I thought it would be useful to bring together the principal documents which relate to the project which will fundamentally reshape the justice system for years to come.

  • The Transformation of the Justice system project was formally launched in a joint statement issued by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals in September 2016.

See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/transforming-our-justice-system-joint-statement

Initially planned for completion in 2021, the end date is currently set back to December 2023, though many parts of the programme have been completed. The principal features the programme can be seen in the following diagram.

The PAC report resulted in six separate responses from the Government, details of which are at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/response-to-public-accounts-committee-transforming-courts-and-tribunals. (see this blog 10 March 2019)

  • One issue, raised in both the above reports,  related to the adequacy of HMCTS engagement with stakeholders. HMCTS responded by commissioning an independent audit of stakeholder engagement which was published in October 2019. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hmcts-stakeholder-perception-audit-report-2019. A further progress report on stakeholder engagement was published in January 2020. (It can be found by googling HMCTS Engaging with our external stakeholders 2020 which leads to a Report published in Jan 2020.)

This has not to date led to a further report from the Public Accounts Committee.

HMCTS issued a response to this report in the form of a Press Release, which is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hmcts-response-to-justice-select-committee-report-on-court-and-tribunal-reforms

I hope that this blog entry, listing key documents and reports relating to the transformation project will be useful for those wanting to get an overview of the project and its progress. I will endeavour to keep readers up with more specific developments as they occur. For the moment, many of these have become intertwined with arrangements that have been made to adjust the work of the courts and tribunals to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (10): Family Justice

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In an earlier blog, Covid 19 and the English Legal System (8): guidance on new working practices, published on 3 July 2020, I drew attention to a resource from the Judiciary, setting out guidance to different courts and tribunals on how to manage cases in the current Covid 19 environment.

This note draws attention to just one of the documents that is to be found on that website. The Remote Access Family Court, (version 5), written by one of the Family Court judges, Mr Justice MacDonald, is a detailed statement of the ways in which in the context of the work of the Family Court, remote access hearings may be conducted, the sorts of proceedings for which remote hearings might be appropriate; the considerations to be taken into account when deciding whether a case should proceed remotely or not.

The primary impetus for the production of the document is the need to keep the business of the family courts going, particularly where matters must be dealt with urgently. The document acknowledges that the continuing need for social distancing is likely to mean that the practices and procedures considered in this report are like to retain their relevance, at least for some months ahead.

However, while acknowledging that aspects of the practices and procedures currently being used may be retained once the problems associated with the Covid 19 pandemic have eased, it states in terms that it should not be assumed that changes currently being adopted will necessarily be retained into the future.

What is clearly needed is for HMCTS to gather robust evidence about how innovations in practice and procedure are working, which takes into account not only the views of judges and lawyers, but also – crucially – the views of parties to proceedings who have experienced the new procedures in operation. New ways of working which work well should be retained; those which do not should be altered or abandoned.

A very first attempt to gather evidence about the new system in operation was made in April 2020, when the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory was asked to undertake a rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings in the family justice system. This produced some preliminary information which helped consideration of when remote hearings might be possible and when remote access should not be used. For example, there was a general feeling that video hearings are more satisfactory than telephone hearings. There was also worry about some of the difficulties associated with the use of different technologies. But these findings are acknowledged to be only preliminary. Much more work needs to be done before a rounded assessment can be made, on which future policy may be based.

What the pandemic has done – and this comment applies to the whole of the justice system, not just family justice – has created the conditions in which new ways of working can be tested. It would be really disappointing if positive lessons learned from these experiences cannot be captured by a proper research programme, which would help the development of future policies for dispute resolution in courts and tribunals.

The report by Mr Justice MacDonald is at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/updated-version-of-the-remote-family-access-court-released/

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory consultation is at https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/coronavirus-family-justice-system/family-courts

Written by lwtmp

July 7, 2020 at 11:38 am

Passing of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020: reforming divorce law

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The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 received the Royal Assent on 26 June 2020. It comes into force on a date to be determined, probably later in 2020. A transition period  is required so that new court forms and procedures, including those to be used online, can be written and agreed.

As modern Acts of Parliament go, this measure is modest in length – a mere 9 sections. But, as I have noted in this blog before, the Act

  • replaces the current requirement to evidence either a conduct or separation ‘fact’ with the provision of a statement of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage (for the first time, couples can opt to make this a joint statement).
  • removes the possibility of contesting the decision to divorce, as a statement will be conclusive evidence that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.
  • introduces a new minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to confirmation to the court that a conditional order of divorce may be made, allowing greater opportunity for couples to agree practical arrangements for the future where reconciliation is not possible and divorce is inevitable.

The history of the campaign to reform the law of divorce is a long and tortuous one. The Church of England report, Putting Asunder, was published in 1964. It was the subject of one of the Law Commission’s earliest report, published in 1966. The Commission published its proposals for a single ground for divorce in 1990. Many commentators take this as the starting date for the campaign for reform which has culminated in the present Act.

The Act itself can be found at https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2019-21/divorcedissolutionandseparation.html

The 1966 Law Commission report is at https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/reform-of-the-grounds-of-divorce-the-field-of-choice/#related

The 1990 Law Commission report is at https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/family-law-the-ground-for-divorce/

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 6, 2020 at 10:47 am

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (9): introduction of a common platform for remote hearings in criminal, civil and family cases

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Moves towards doing more court and tribunal business via remote links, rather than by personal appearances in courtrooms, had begun even before the Covid 19 pandemic struck. Indeed, the use of virtual or remote courts and tribunals was a key element in the Transformation of the Justice system that was in progress before the virus arrived.

The pandemic has, however, sharply accelerated the expansion in the use of remote hearings.

The Government has been using the Cloud Video Platform (CVP). It was initially used in the criminal justice system across 60 crown courts and 93 magistrates’ courts. The technology has been used in some 3,600 crown court hearings and more than 7,000 overnight remand cases heard by magistrates. It was not used for cases involving jury trial.

The announcement of the first stage in the use of this technology is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-tech-will-help-keep-the-criminal-justice-system-moving-during-covid-19-pandemic

On July 1, 2020, the Government announced that it had decided to expand the use of the CVP to over 120 civil and family courts.

The Press announcement states that: ‘CVP can be accessed by any device that has a camera and a microphone – such as a mobile phone or tablet. Anyone can join easily, and securely, through a web browser, and sessions can be locked to make sure only appropriate parties join. Training rooms can also be set up so that sessions may be rehearsed before they go live.’

Further details are at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-video-tech-to-increase-remote-hearings-in-civil-and-family-courts

Although the rapid roll-out of this platform has been driven by the challenges arising from Covid 19, I assume that, once in place, this technology will become part of the fabric of the justice system.

Looking ahead, the full potential of such technology to enable potential court users to access the courts more easily will need to be explored and be accompanied by a substantial public education programme.