Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘chapter 7’ Category

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

On-line courts come a stage closer: Bill to establish new On-line Procedure Committee

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May 1st 2019 saw an important stage reached in the process of creating more on-line procedures to deal with family, civil justice and tribunals proceedings. The Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was introduced to House of Lords where it had its first reading.

The Bill, when enacted, will provide for the creation of a new judicially led procedure committee. It will develop special rules to ensure that on-line procedures are easy to use and accessible to the public.

This builds on new processes already introduced such as divorce online and money claims online.

A press announcement is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/even-more-people-set-to-benefit-from-online-court-reform

 

 

 

Changing the grounds for divorce – new legislation proposed

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Family lawyers have long argued that the current law of divorce, which requires parties to prove that a marriage has broken down irretrievably and force spouses to provide evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation – even in cases where a couple has made a mutual decision to part ways – often exacerbates conflict, rather than reduces it. Although very few divorces are contested by the parties, this practice is known to be misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour.

Following a consultation, in April 2019, the Government announced that it would bring forward a Bill, which if enacted, would change the law.

The key features of the proposed legislation are :

  • the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage will become the sole ground for divorce;
  • instead of a requirement to provide evidence of a ‘fact’ around behaviour or separation, there will be a requirement to provide a statement of irretrievable breakdown;
  • the two-stage legal process, currently referred to as decree nisi and decree absolute, will be retained;
  • couples will have the option of a making joint application for divorce, alongside  the option (existing) for one party to initiate the process;
  • the ability to contest a divorce will go;
  • a minimum timeframe of 6 months, from petition stage to final divorce (20 weeks from petition stage to decree nisi; 6 weeks from decree nisi to decree absolute), will be introduced.

Proposals for reforming divorce law are always controversial. Critics argue that making it too easy to get a divorce will undermine the institution of marriage. But those who currently deal with divorce on a daily basis see the emotional harm that current arrangements can bring and have broadly welcomed the new proposals.

The Bill will be introduced ‘when parliamentary time permits’.

Further information is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-divorce-law-to-end-the-blame-game which gives links to the consultation on which these proposals are based.

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

May 1, 2019 at 11:39 am

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 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 policy should develop to d 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

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/

 

 

 

 

Keeping the ‘Transformation: Courts and Tribunals 2022’ programme under review

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In June 2018, I noted here the critical report from the National Audit Office  – published in May 2018 – on the Transformation: Courts and Tribunals Programme 2022.

The NAO report was reviewed by the Public Accounts Committee , which took evidence from the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service. In July 2018, it published a pretty brutal report which listed a number of concerns about the programme and set out a number of recommendations on the way forward.

The PAC found, in summary:

  1. It had little confidence that HMCTS can successfully deliver this hugely ambitious programme to bring the court system into the modern age.
  2. It found that HMCTS had failed to articulate clearly what the transformed justice system would look like, which limits stakeholders’ ability to plan for, and influence the changes.
  3. Despite revising the timescale, it thought that HMCTS’s imperative to deliver at such a fast pace risked not allowing time for meaningful consultation or evaluation and could lead to unintended consequences.
  4. The Committee thought HMCTS had not adequately considered how the reforms will impact access to, and the fairness of, the justice system for the people using it, many of whom are vulnerable.
  5. It found that, one third of the way through the programme, the Ministry of Justice still did not understand the financial implications of its planned changes on the wider justice system.
  6. The Committee remained concerned that the Ministry of Justice was taking on significant amount of change, without a clear sense of its priorities, at a time when it is facing severe financial and demand pressures.

In relation to findings 1, 2 and 4 above, the Committee wanted HMCTS to start producing update reported on a regular 6 month basis, starting in January 2019.

In relation to finding 3, it wanted, by November 2018, HMCTS to publish plans on how and when it will engage with stakeholders and be clear about how it will act on the feedback received and adjust plans if necessary.

In relation to findings 5 and 6 it recommended regular updates from the Ministry of Justice, again starting in January 2019.

The Government has just announced that it has agreed to all the PACs recommendations.

As I said in my original comment on the report from the National Audit Office, my personal view is that it is essential that the justice system is modernised. Doing nothing is not an option. While stern criticism may well help to ensure that the Director of the reform programme keeps her eye on the ball, I also think that it is important to support those working on the reform programme. Such harsh criticism could be extremely undermining of staff confidence and could paradoxically increase the chances of some of the negative outcomes listed by the Committee coming to fruition.

I will keep readers of the blog posted as and when new material is published.

The NAO report is at https://www.nao.org.uk/report/early-progress-in-transforming-courts-and-tribunals/

The PAC report is at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/976/97602.htm

The Government’s response is at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/746797/CCS001_CCS1018676736-001_Treasury_Minutes_Gov_Resp_43-58_Cm9702_Web_Accessible.pdf

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