Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘Chapter 8’ Category

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (11): Civil Justice – results of the Civil Justice Council rapid survey

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As I have already noted here, Covid 19 has had a major impact on the ways in the courts are delivering their services. In particular, much attention has been directed towards the use of virtual or remote hearings – online paper hearings, hearings by phone and hearings by video.

The Civil Justice Council commissioned a rapid preliminary survey of how these new processes were working. The results of that survey were published in early June 2020. It was based on responses to a survey drawn from the experience of those involved in cases in a two-week period in early May 2020. The study was carried out by Dr Natalie Byrom of the Legal Education Foundation.

Obviously, such a survey can be no more than an initial glance at what is happening on the ground. Many of these preliminary findings are what might be expected:

  • many judges and practitioners were finding that they were getting on better with using new technologies than they might have anticipated;
  • they were coping despite a lack of advance training in the use of technologies;
  • the technologies themselves were often not as reliable as participants would like;
  • some types of hearing were more suited to remote hearings than others.

These are the sorts of issue that should be mitigated as all those involved in delivering new services  become better trained and more used to dealing with cases using the new technologies.

From a rather detailed report, four important points for the way ahead may be noted:.

  1. At present HMCTS does not have an effective way of capturing information details about what types of case are brought to court. For example, data is published on the numbers of possession proceedings brought by mortgage companies or landlords against residential occupiers (mostly for failure to meet payment obligations). But it is impossible to get any detailed information about the use of courts for other potential housing law issues. The report makes a strong plea that much greater effort should be made by HMCTS to identify the ‘data points’ which would provide a much more detailed picture of how the civil court system is functioning. Effective planning of future services cannot be provided without more detailed management information.
  2. There was a strong impression that video hearings were better suited for remote hearings that telephone hearings.
  3. There were inevitable concerns that litigants in person might be in difficulty using the new technologies unless adequate support was available.
  4. The survey was unable to capture what lay users of the system, in particular litigants in person, thought of these new developments. It was essential to fill this knowledge gap if the objective of HMCTS’ reforms – to provide services that users want and need – was to be met.

The survey report and related press release can be accessed at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/civil-justice-council-report-on-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-civil-court-users-published/

Further information about the Legal Education Foundation is at https://www.thelegaleducationfoundation.org/

 

Probate online: recent developments – a practitioner’s view

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The arrival of Covid 19, and the necessity of trying to keep the legal system functioning with locked-down courts, virtual hearings and the like has meant that other aspects of the justice system Transformation programme have perhaps been forgotten.

The latest edition  (July 2020) of the HMCTS blog, Inside HMCTS, reminds us that other things are also happening, designed to modernise and approve the efficiency of the services provided within the legal system.

One development which has been quietly worked on for a number of years is the creation of means to carry out probate – the process of dealing with a deceased person’s estate – online.

Historically it has been an extremely difficult process, surrounded by a lot of procedural and legalistic complexity.

The HMCTS reform programme included a plan to modernise the process, to make it more straightforward both for practitioners and individual members of the public. An online service has been available since the end of 2019. Around 60,000 members of the public have used the service. And increasing numbers of solicitors are also using the service.

Stephen Cobb, a solicitor with a firm of lawyers who were involved in developing and testing the new process, has written a very interesting account of how the new system works. He stresses that it is still work in progress and that the current system will not necessarily deal with every complex estate. But, for general use, he is impressed with how it works. And he likes the freedom it gives him to submit the bulk of the paperwork on line.

For details, see https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2020/06/05/reforming-probate-for-the-twenty-first-century/

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

July 11, 2020 at 10:09 am

Transformation of the justice system: money claims online

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In November 2018, HM Courts and Tribunals Service launched its money claim online service. On July 3 2020, it announced that a significant milestone had been reached in the use of this service, namely that, after 18 months, over 100,000 cases had gone through the new system.

The Government states:

The service aims to make it simpler and quicker for people to submit a claim, by allowing them to do so from their own home and removing complex legal language from the online application. Most people take less than 15 minutes to complete the initial claim form. Almost 9 in 10 people using the service have been satisfied or very satisfied with it, with claims now being issued in minutes, not days.

In many cases, this that means claims can be issued, responded to and settled without the need for third-party involvement.

See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/more-than-10000-civil-money-claims-issued-online

(The figure IS 100,000, not the 10,000 mentioned in the Press Release Heading!)

Written by lwtmp

July 4, 2020 at 11:03 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.

 

 

 

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (8): guidance on new working practices

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As readers of this blog will already be aware, I have been considering the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on the English Legal System. There will, I am sure, be many more blog entries to come.

For those not involved on a daily basis in the work of courts and tribunals, it can be hard to get an overview of what is happening.

An invaluable source of information is available on the Judiciary website which brings together the vast range of advice and guidance on how courts and tribunals should be working in the current environment. Some of this advice is general – applying across the board; other advice relates to specific jurisdictions.

Access to the guidance, which is updated when necessary, is available at https://www.judiciary.uk/coronavirus-covid-19-advice-and-guidance/

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (7): steps to recovery

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Since March 2020, the Government has worked closely with the judiciary and others to ensure the justice system continues to perform its vital role while keeping court and tribunal users safe.

To achieve this, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has rapidly expanded the use of technology to allow hearings to be conducted by phone and video.

HMCTS also temporarily closed around half of its buildings to focus effort and resources more effectively. The most urgent cases have been prioritised by the judiciary to ensure public safety, protect the vulnerable and safeguard children.

Having responded to the immediate crisis, HMCTS is now focusing on how to recover its operations to increase courts and tribunals capacity to deal both with normal workloads across jurisdictions and outstanding cases.

HMCTS has recently published a progress report to update those interested on its recovery plans. It sets out in a short booklet format the areas of working being undertaken in the short and medium terms.

It assumes that the need to continue to maintain social distancing as far as possible will continue, at least into 2021. It also emphasises that the programme of reform of Courts and Tribunals is continuing. Lessons from the experience of new ways of working, resulting from the need to meet the challenge of Covid 19, must be learned as the broader reform programme unfurls.

The Progress update is at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/court-and-tribunal-recovery-update-in-response-to-coronavirus

The update has been accompanied by a statement from the Lord Chief Justice and the Vice President of Tribunals, available at https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/courts-and-tribunals-recovery/

See also a blog from the Head of HMCTS at https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2020/07/01/coronavirus-recovering-in-our-courts-and-tribunals/

 

Report of the Commission on Justice in Wales: summary of recommendations

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I have just published a short blog on the constitutional changes being made in Wales. As part of that, I mentioned the publication of the Commission on Justice in Wales, whose report was published in October 2019. I think it is an extremely interesting document, for two main reasons.

  1. There are a number of specific ideas in this report which should be considered more actively for implementation in England as well.
  2. It offers a holistic set of proposals for a distinct Justice system for Wales. I have long thought that justice policy in England was made in a piecemeal way. This report provides a model of what a comprehensive Justice Policy in England might look like.

Of course, it is easier for a new government to engage in forward planning at a time when its responsibilities are limited. But the ways in which different parts of the English legal system have been dealing with Covid 19 have often been innovative and imaginative. I would argue that this provides an opportunity, for those willing to seize it, for thinking about what a coherent modern justice policy for England might look like.

Anyway, I offer this summary, adapted from the Commission’s report as something that those interested in Justice policy in England might also like to consider.

Source: Commission on Justice in Wales at https://gov.wales/commission-justice-wales

Commission on Justice in Wales: Summary of recommendations

1. Information, advice and assistance

  • The funding for legal aid and for the third sector providing advice and assistance should be brought together in Wales to form a single fund.
  • Criminal legal aid policy and delivery should be based on the approaches to public defender schemes adopted by the Nordic nations.

2. Criminal justice: reducing crime and promoting rehabilitation

  • A new Wales Criminal Justice Board should be created. It should set an overall strategy for Wales including responsibility for ensuring the rights of victims are respected and there is proper delivery of services to victims.
  • The Police, Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary and HM Prison and Probation Service should each publish a strategy in respect of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in Wales and report annually on the strategy to the Assembly.
  • Policing and crime reduction policy, including drug abuse and mental health related issues, should be determined in Wales so that it is aligned and integrated with Welsh health, education and social policy.
  • Problem-solving courts should be established in Wales along the Northern Ireland model.
  •  Youth justice policy should be determined and delivered in Wales. The age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 12 years old.
  • A comprehensive network of services and centres as alternatives to custody should be established rapidly. An integrated and whole system approach to offender management should be established with a single rehabilitative strategy in Wales.
  • Needs assessments of Welsh offenders should be conducted to identify the range of interventions required in both prisons and the community.

3. Civil justice

  • Digital court services and other dispute resolution services that are being developed and introduced must be fully accessible to people throughout Wales.
  • Dispute resolution before courts, tribunals, alternative dispute resolution and ombudsmen, as well as dispute resolution in respect of administrative law, should be promoted and coordinated in Wales through a body chaired by a senior judge.
  • The feasibility of a low cost and effective resolution method for civil disputest hrough the use of a comprehensive ombudsmen scheme, taking into account the online court, should be examined.

4.  Administrative justice and coroners

  • All public bodies, ombudsmen and other tribunals which have been established under Welsh law or by the Welsh Government, which make judicial or quasi-judicial decisions, and are not currently subject to the supervision of the President of Welsh Tribunals, should be brought under the supervision of the President.
  • The Administrative Court should have the power to stay court proceedings whilst the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales investigates a complaint. The Ombudsman should have the power to refer a point of law to the Court.
  • The Welsh Tribunals Unit should have structural independence and the Welsh tribunals should be used for dispute resolution relating to future Welsh Legislation.

5. Family justice: children

  • The law relating to children and family justice in Wales should be brought together in one coherent legal system aligned with functions in relation to health, education and welfare.
  • Pending further research and the development of a long-term strategy, an all Wales approach to family justice should be developed and led in Wales through the Family Justice Network for Wales and the Local Family Justice Boards. The approach should be followed by all local authorities for dealing with child protection referrals with the objective of avoiding care proceedings when family support would be more appropriate.
  • It should be a matter of routine practice prior to the first hearing in care proceedings to examine the feasibility of problem-solving and the form it might take, with a view to finding what steps short of taking a child into care can be put in place.
  • The voice of the child should be heard at every stage of the proceedings.
  • Family Drug and Alcohol Courts should be established in Wales
  • There should be vigorous support for a programme of research to underpin reform of Welsh family justice and associated preventative services. The overarching aim should be the reduction in the numbers of children taken into care and the provision of far better evidence of the impacts of intervention on family life.
  • A carefully thought through long-term policy for reducing the numbers of children taken into care should be developed after the conclusions of the research and then implemented.
  • Legal advice should be available to each parent in private family law disputes prior to the commencement of proceedings up to a maximum fixed amount in each case

6. Delivering justice: locality and structure

  • A strategy for Wales for provision of proper physical and digital access to justice before the courts, tribunals and other forms of dispute resolution should be drawn up and determined in Wales based on the needs of the people of Wales

7. The legal sector and the economy of Wales

  • The Welsh Government should, in close consultation with the legal professions, provide fully-funded legal apprenticeships to enable people to qualify as legal professionals in Wales.
  • There should be greater transparency about the level and distribution of expenditure on external legal services by the Welsh Government, each Welsh local authority and all other public bodies in Wales.
  • The procurement of barristers’ services should be reformed to help build the capacity of the Bar in Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should develop and implement as soon as possible our proposed strategy to reinvigorate the rural and post-industrial legal sector in Wales. It should provide strong support for investment in technology, especially in post-industrial and rural Wales.
  • The Welsh Government must provide clear leadership and support for the legal services sector. This should be targeted, user-friendly, flexible and attractive to potential inward investors especially with establishing a technology-based nearshoring centre as an objective.
  • The Welsh Government, legal professionals in Wales, the Law Society, the Bar Council, other professional bodies and academia should work in partnership. They should develop and promote the capabilities of the legal sector, promote South Wales as a legal centre and increase the export of legal services.

8. Knowledge, skills and innovation

  • Welsh law schools must reassess their undergraduate programmes to take advantage of the scope for comparative studies and transferable qualifications.
  • Law tech must be taught to all students and the professions across Wales.
  • All university and college education providers in Wales should teach Welsh law as part of the ordinary undergraduate syllabus and work together to produce the necessary material. The place of Welsh law and the distinctiveness of the law in Wales should be properly reflected in professional and continuing legal education and training. Wales specific data should be collected and published on a sufficient scale to enable disaggregation, with a view to proper evidence-based policy development and as a basis for research.
  • The Welsh Government should lead the development and implementation of an action plan to promote and support public legal education, particularly for children and young people.

9. The Welsh language

  • All justice bodies should be subject to the Welsh Language Measure 2011. The Bar, CILEx and the Law Society should provide courses on using Welsh in the workplace, similar to those used by the Judicial College. Digital services that are being introduced must be accessible, free help must be available and all must be available in Welsh at the same time as the English version.
  • Professional legal education for those wishing to practise in Wales must be available in the Welsh language with the phased introduction of the availability of all professional examinations in Welsh.  Welsh law schools must collaborate on Welsh medium legal education, especially as regards the provision of teaching materials. All coroner services should be available in the Welsh language.

10. Recommendations on devolution of justice

  • There should be legislative devolution of justice. Restrictions and reservations governing the Assembly’s power to legislate on all forms of justice, including policing and offender management and rehabilitation, should be removed, so that it corresponds more closely with the position of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament In tandem with the removal of reservations and restrictions on the Assembly’s powers, responsibility for executive functions in relation to justice in Wales should be transferred to the Welsh Government.
  • Devolution of justice must be accompanied by a full transfer of financial resources, including all identifiable administrative and capital resources relating to Wales.

11. Recommendations to be implemented under the current scheme of devolution

  • Clear and accountable leadership on justice in the Welsh Government must be established under the current scheme of devolution. The Assembly should take a more proactive role in appropriate scrutiny of the operation of the justice system.
  • The Welsh Government should address policy issues relating to justice by using external experts who can report jointly with civil servants to Ministers.
  • The Welsh Government and the legal sector should develop a joint leadership programme.
  • A Law Council of Wales should be established to promote the interests of legal education and the awareness of Welsh law, to ensure proper provision of teaching the law in Welsh, and to assist students in their education and training as future practitioners.
  • The organisation of the senior judiciary in Wales should be changed to provide the necessary working relationships and leadership within Wales.  Wales should be put in a similar position to Scotland and Northern Ireland in the Supreme Court as regards the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court.

12, Recommendations for implementation with legislative devolution

  • With legislative devolution, there must be a new Justice Department in the Welsh Government led by a Cabinet Minister.
  • The office of Counsel General should continue as an office that provides independent legal advice to the Welsh Government and heads the Government Legal Service in Wales.
  • Legislative devolution will require the establishment of a Justice Committee in the Assembly.
  • Where there is overlap between the roles of local, regional and national boards, committees and partnerships, they should be merged.
  • With legislative devolution, the governance arrangements for the police should be re-examined.
  • The law applicable in Wales should be formally identified as the law of Wales, distinct from the law of England.
  • The present system where legal practitioners can practise in England and Wales and the legal professions are jointly regulated should be continued.
  • Legislation should provide for a High Court and a Court of Appeal of Wales to be established by the Assembly.
  • With legislative devolution, a Welsh Courts and Tribunals Service should be developed from the base of a Welsh Tribunals Unit reformed on the model of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service.
  •  With legislative devolution, the Welsh Government will need to review, and keep under continuing review, the justice infrastructure for Wales.

13. Action to be taken now by the Welsh Government and the Assembly

  • The Welsh Government should begin the process of reform by listing the recommendations it will seek to implement whilst the current scheme of devolution continues. The Assembly should make arrangements to monitor and review the process of reform.

Covid 19 and the English Legal System (5): Parliamentary inquiries (revised)

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Those interested in how key actors in the legal world are trying to cope with the implications for the English Legal System of  Covid-19 might care to follow the work – currently on-going – of two  Parliamentary Select Committees.

The  House of Commons Justice Committee launched an inquiry into Coronavirus (COVID-19) on 31 March 2020. It is examining the impact on prisons, the probation service and the court systems. They have held three evidence gathering sessions in which they heard from a number of key witnesses, including the Lord Chief Justice, the Minister of State, key officials from Prisons and Probation, the Chair of the Magistrates Association. It is likely that the Committee will publish a relatively short report in the course of the next few weeks.

At the same time on 13 May 2020, the House of Lords Constitution Committee opened an inquiry into the Constitutional implications of Covid 19. This will be a more wide-ranging inquiry than that being held by the Commons Justice Committee.

The announcement of the inquiry states:

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Government’s measures to respond to it have significant constitutional implications, as well as health, social and economic ones. These include:

  • The ability of Parliament to hold the Government to account
  • Scrutiny of emergency powers
  • The operation of the courts

The Constitution Committee will consider these issues and other related matters as part of an umbrella inquiry into the constitutional implications of Covid-19. The Committee will initially explore questions such as:

  • What can Parliament do to maximise its scrutiny of the emergency regulations and to hold the Government to account effectively during lockdown? How are adjustments to procedures and processes working in the House of Lords?
  • What are the consequences for different ways of Parliament working on effectiveness, accessibility, fairness and transparency?
  • What emergency powers has the Government sought during the pandemic and what powers has it used and how?
  • What lessons are there for future uses of emergency powers, their safeguards and the processes for scrutinising them?
  • How has the Government used both law and guidance to implement the lockdown and what have been the consequences of its approach? How has this varied across the constituent parts of the United Kingdom?
  • What liberties has Parliament loaned the Government during lockdown? What are the processes for reviewing and returning them? Are the sunset provisions in the Acts and regulations sufficient?
  • How is the court system operating during the pandemic? What has been the impact of virtual proceedings on access to justice, participation in proceedings, transparency and media reporting?
  • How will the justice system manage the increasing backlog of criminal cases? Is it appropriate to rethink the jury system during the pandemic, and beyond, and if so how?

 

To date, the Committee has issued a call for evidence and has had a number of hearings at which oral evidence has been presented. Among the witnesses who have already given evidence is the ‘guru’ of the use of IT in the delivery of legal services, Prof Richard Susskind and the leading researcher on the justice system, Prof Dame Hazel Genn.

I suspect this report will take somewhat longer to appear than that of the Commons Committee.

In addition to these two inquiries which cover many aspects of the working of the legal and justice systems, in mid-May 2020, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also launched an inquiry: Responding to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020. The aim of this inquiry is set out as follows:

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was emergency legislation passed by Parliament on 25 March, to provide the Government with the powers it wanted to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.

Under section 98 of the Act 2020, every six months there is “parliamentary review” which means that the Government must, so far as is practicable, make arrangements for the following motion to be debated and voted on: “That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.”

PACAC is launching an inquiry to scrutinise the constitutional and public administration aspects of the Act, with the goal of supporting and informing that debate.

It has issued a call for evidence but has not to date arranged for any meetings or hearings.

For links to all these inquiries see:

The Justice inquiry is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/254/coronavirus-covid19-the-impact-on-prison-probation-and-court-systems/

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/298/constitutional-implications-of-covid19/

The evidence of Profs Susskind and Genn is at https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/0f0810d1-9489-4506-9108-139f6d4f221e

The PACAC inquiry is at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/310/responding-to-covid19-and-the-coronavirus-act-2020/

All evidence sessions held by Parliamentary Committees can be accessed at https://parliamentlive.tv/Commons.

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 collapsed when the General Election held in the last autumn of 2019 was announced.

Nevertheless, far from derailing the Government’s reform plans, the Covid 19 pandemic has arguably done more to speed up the 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 even 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