Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘tribunal service

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

Transforming administrative justice – current projects: progress reports

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Information about the progress of the Transformation: Courts and Tribunals 2022 programme has been emerging from HMTCS. (See this blog October 2 October 2018).

In this note I look in a little more detail at projects in the administrative justice area.

In their recent progress update, HMCTS listed 5 projects that were either started or in prospect relating to administrative justice. These were:

  1. Upper Tribunal: Building the IT infrastucture to enable new digital ways of working across Upper Tribunal.
  2. Social Security and Child Support (SSCS): Establishing a new, digital process to improve the experience of appellants, allowing them to submit, track and manage their appeal online.  Pilot projects are already been trialled in a number of venues.
  3. Immigration and Asylum Chamber  (IAC): Developing the administration of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber’s service so that it can adapt according to different needs of users. It will enable case resolution both online and by video.
  4. Employment Tribunals (ET): This project will use a combination of the tribunals authorisation and the civil money claims models to develop an ET service that can change the way it works according to what the user needs. This will include the ability to resolve cases online and by video.
  5. Specialist Tribunals: The project will establish new ways of working across the tribunals, developed on a tribunal-by-tribunal basis. This includes the Pilot project enable appeals to be made to the Tax Tribunal on-line, which are being tested and evaluated.
This information has been derived and adapted from Reform Update Autumn 2018, published by HMCTS, and available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/744235/Reform_Update_issue_2_September_2018.pdf

Improving Immigration and Asylum procedures

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Immigration and asylum is always controversial. People have strong view, both for and against current immigration policy and practice. But these policies are underpinned by a legislative framework (albeit a very complex one) and if we believe, as I do, that upholding the rule is an important societal value, then it is important that those impacted by our law on immigration and asylum should be able to rely on decisions that are made in accordance with the law, and that there should be rights of appeal where something has gone wrong.

For a number of years, however, the immigration and asylum appeals process has been under close government scrutiny. In the early part of the 21st century, the concern was with the huge numbers of immigration cases being taken on judicial review to the High Court. More recently, most of these cases were taken away from the High Court and transferred to the Immigration and Asylum chambers of the First Tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal.

However, numbers remained high. In this context, there were concerns that too many cases brought were unmerited, being used as a delaying tactic to postpone deportation; and that some of those providing advice and assistance in immigration cases were not providing a properly professional service.

As part of its major series of reports on the justice system, written to assist the Transformation of our Justice System programme led by HM Courts and Tribunals Service, JUSTICE, the all-party Human Rights group, has just published a report Immigration and Asylum Appeals – a Fresh Look. (I declare an interest, I was a member of the working party, chaired by Sir Ross Cranston, that wrote the report.)

In it they try to take a dispassionate look at the problems and challenges which face the immigration and asylum appeals procedure. Their approach is to look at each of the steps through which a case may go in order to  identify difficulties and recommend practical change.

The report is quite detailed. In outline, it argues:

Home Office refusal decisions The Working Party’s view is  that better Home Office decision-making – with more emphasis on getting it right first time – is the key to delivering a better appellate system;

The application process for immigration and asylum appeals. Here the working party argues that more detailed attention needs to be paid to the move to online processes. At the same time the working party addresses the issue of unsupervised, unqualified and poor quality representatives purporting to provide advice and assistance to appellants;

Appeals against adverse decisions of the Home Office on immigration and asylum matters in the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber). This examines the important role of tribunal case workers in moving cases forward. It also wants to see stronger judicial case management to improve tribunal efficiency.

Hearings in the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) and Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber). This section of the report focusses in particular on video-conferencing and video-hearings, recognising the potential advantages of these models. At the same time, the report stresses the fundamental principles that should govern any expansion in their use and where they will not be appropriate.

Appeals to the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), Judicial Reviewapplications and appeals to the Court of Appeal. This part of the report focusses on the multiple stages that may be gone through when seeking permission to appeal. The working party considered the tension between the important right of review in this jurisdiction and the pressure on the system that flows from too many appellate stages. While not recommending removing rights of appeal, the report outlines ways to streamline this process.

A key theme to emerge from the report is that there needs to be much better communication between the parties.The Working Party considers how this might be facilitated both at the pre-hearing stage and on a continuing informal basis.

Detailed recommendations are made on ways to improve the management of cases and to reduce the number of unnecessary appeals – to the benefit of all participants in the system and the administration of justice more generally.

The above note has been adapted from the report which is available at https://justice.org.uk/new-justice-working-party-report-on-immigration-and-asylum-appeals/

 

 

 

Transforming the Justice system – maintaining the estate; answering the phones; better listing

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I have noted many of the developments that are currently taking place within  courts and tribunals, arising from the Transformation programme that has been on-going for the past couple of years. Much of the emphasis has been on the design and development of new practices and procedures – e.g. pilot schemes relating to the use of on-line courts, or the digitization of procedures

A recent blog from the Head of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Susan Acland-Hood, notes that the transformation programme is not just  the use of high-tech innovations. It also includes more bread and butter issues, which nonetheless affect the public and those who work in the courts.

In her recent post, she notes three specific examples of investment, designed to improve the day-to-day operation of the courts and the court service.

1 Maintenance and repair. Many court buildings suffer from heating systems that do not work, lifts that do not work, and a generally drab physical environment. The modernisation programme includes improvements to the overall environment of courts and tribunals.

2 Answering the phone.  Investment is being made in a number of call centres whose task will be to answer questions directed to a number of courts – county courts and magistrates courts. This is designed to ensure that calls don’t go unanswered, especially in smaller courts where there may be insufficient staff to handle all the incoming calls.

3 Tacking delay.  The blog notes that the number of outstanding cases in the Crown Court is at the lowest level since 2004; the time taken from first listing in the Magistrates’ Court to completion at the Crown Court has been decreasing since the peak of 196 days in 2015 to 175 days in 2017. (It is not clear whether this is due to greater efficiency or because few cases are coming into the criminal justice system.) It also note the positive impact of the use of single-justices hearings to reduce delay.

Forther information is available at https://insidehmcts.blog.gov.uk/2018/05/17/reform-means-getting-the-basics-right-too/

 

 

Written by lwtmp

June 4, 2018 at 10:01 am

Transforming the Justice system – case studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immigration appeals and delays: On the verge of a crisis?

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This links to a short blog article written by Robert Thomas, the leading academic authority on the work of Immigration Tribunals. Analysing recent (December 2016) reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Select Committee (among others), the note provides evidence that while the number of appeals are declining, the numbers of appeals already in the system awaiting a decision is actually increasing. This seems to be largely the consequence of an over-zealous reduction in the number of Tribunal Judges.

The announcement that the Human Rights Group JUSTICE is embarking on a review of immigration appeals is therefore particularly welcome.

Source: Immigration appeals and delays: On the verge of a crisis?.

Written by lwtmp

May 18, 2017 at 9:24 am

Fees in immigration and asylum appeals

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In September 2016 I noted there the decision of the Government to introduce massive increases in the fees charged for bringing appeals to the First Tier Immigration and Asylum Chamber. They were introduced in October 2016.

On 26 November 2016, in a remarkable change of heart, the Government announced that the October increases would be scrapped and that the fee levels would revert to those in place before their introduction.

It should not be thought that the issue has entirely gone away. The Minister’s statement repeats the point that, in the Government’s view, the cost of providing court and tribunal should be broadly neutral, and that those who use them should pay more. Officials will therefore be working on new proposals, which will be set out in due course.

I think that two key questions remain unanswered:

1 Is the idea of making courts and tribunals self-financing the best basis for providing this service, particularly where what is being appealed against are decisions taken by civil servants working within the government? Is there not a public interest element – which should be funded in other ways, not by the individual – in ensuring that decisions taken by officials are right?

2 If fees are set at such a level that cases are simply not brought to the tribunal, does this not make the whole exercise self-defeating, in that no money comes into the system? In addition, if the flow of cases dries up, it is hard to argue that the impact of the fees has not interfered with access to justice.

I do hope that the nest consultation paper deals in a rather more nuanced way with these issues of principle, rather than just focusing on the narrow question of cash.

For the Minister’s statement, go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/courts-and-tribunals-update

Written by lwtmp

November 26, 2016 at 10:31 am