Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘online dispute resolution

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Money claims on line

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For many years it has been possible to start a small money claim by completing forms on-line and submitting them to the court.

In April 2018, following a pilot launched in July 2017, a new on-line process for making a money claim with a value of up to £10,000 (the current small claims limit)  has been launched, designed to be easier to use by potential claimants. Rather than having to fill in and post a paper form, or use the original on-line system which dated from 2002, the new pilot allows people to issue their County Court claim more easily, settle the dispute online and also recommends mediation services  (which can save time, stress, and money).

According to the Press Release announcing this decision “Early evidence [from the original pilot] suggests that the online system has improved access to justice as engagement from defendants has improved.”

At present, it seems that the only way that one can see how the new process works in practice is to go on-line and submit the details of a potential claim – this includes setting up a special account. What I think is urgently required is one of those ‘how to’ videos that are available on You Tube. (There are videos with this or similar titles but they don’t specifically refer to the new MoJ scheme.)

The press release announcing the development is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/quicker-way-to-resolve-claim-disputes-launched-online.

If you would like to explore the money claim website more fully, it can be found at https://www.gov.uk/make-money-claim

 

Reforming the Civil Justice system

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There have recently been two reports making proposals for reform of the civil justice system.
In the first, published in February 2015, a committee of the Civil Justice Council, chaired by Professor Richard Susskind made proposals for the development of online dispute resolution (ODR)

In summary the report calls for radical change in the way that the court system of England and Wales handles low value civil claims. We strongly advocate the introduction of online dispute resolution (ODR). The committee argued, in outline:

  • For low value claims, we are concerned that our current court system is too costly, too slow, and
    too complex, especially for litigants in person.
  • To overcome these problems, our main recommendation is that HM Courts & Tribunals Service
    should establish a new, Internet-based court service, known as HM Online Court (HMOC).
  • On HMOC, members of the Judiciary would decide cases on an online basis, interacting
    electronically with parties. Earlier resolution of disputes on HMOC would also be achieved –
    through the work of individuals we call ‘facilitators’.
  • We predict two major benefits would flow from HMOC – an increase in access to justice (a
    more affordable and user-friendly service) and substantial savings in the cost of the court system.
  • ODR is not science fiction. We present a series of case studies from around the world that clearly
    demonstrate its potential.
  • We argue that to improve access to justice, it is vital not just to have better methods of resolving
    disputes but also to have effective ways of avoiding and containing disputes. ODR can help here.
  • The technology underpinning ODR is evolving rapidly. We make a series of predictions about
    the likely capabilities of later generations of ODR system.
  • Our Group would be pleased to work closely with HMCTS in a new phase of work, that should
    focus on piloting the proposals in this report.

Their report is available at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/reviews/online-dispute-resolution/odr-report-february-2015/

More recently JUSTICE has published an important report – Civil Justice in an Age of Austerity. A Committee, chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge Sir Stanley Burnton, argues that the age of austerity should also be seen as ‘an age of opportunity’ to change the way the civil justice system operates.

It supports the proposals for ODR made by the Civil Justice Group (above) but goes further proposing that the courts take more responsibility for ‘triaging’ cases – with court officials playing a more proactive role in helping parties to disputes to resolve their problems themselves, leaving judges to deal with the most complex cases. It also argues for better information about legal rights and obligations.

The JUSTICE report is available at http://justice.org.uk/delivering-justice-in-an-age-of-austerity-report-launch/

Given the General Election, it will be some time before policy initiatives – if any – emerge from Government. But they show that there are influential figures in the legal system anxious to promote greater efficiency and a clearer user focus on the work of the courts.