Resolution paints a worrying picture of court modernisation programme
As regular readers may be aware, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) is currently carrying out a range of reforms to introduce new technology and modernise the justice system. The reforms include using online services and video technology to reduce demand on courtrooms.
A recent National Audit Office report found that the scale of proposed changes to HMCTS present a challenge and that HMCTS has so far made less progress than it originally planned, with costs increasing whilst benefits have decreased. The modernisation programme has come to the attention of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the benefits of the programme and whether enough progress has been made so that it delivers value for money.
As part of the inquiry, the Committee has invited written evidence from interested parties. One party to submit such evidence is Resolution, the association of lawyers and other professionals who deal with family disputes. Their evidence (which you can read here) paints a worrying picture of the modernisation programme. Here are some extracts:
“Resolution supports the aims of the Ministry of Justice/HMCTS to provide a reformed system that works better for all users, uses court time more proportionately, and makes processes more accessible to users.”
“To date, we don’t consider that those aims have been met and our members as end users are yet to really feel any benefits on the ground for themselves or their clients. Whilst we hope that the reform programme will deliver benefits for family court users, we, as an organisation, and our members currently lack confidence (partly due to their experience of divorce centres introduced from late 2014) that it will do so, and any benefits are yet to be strongly evidenced. In the meantime, we are seriously concerned that the family courts are edging ever nearer to breaking point.”
The modernisation programme involves the closure of many courts, about which Resolution says this:
“Amongst our many concerns, we have always been concerned by the lack of reporting on the impact on and capacity of courts receiving work from closing courts, as well as what resources they might need. It is disappointing that we are led to believe that, on top of capacity issues in current provision, further court closures affecting family court users are likely to be proposed. Without proper analysis of the effect of the court closures so far, and the extent of need for face to face hearings in the family jurisdiction, we reiterate our concern that the family court will inch ever closer to breaking point.”
“Whilst modernisation of the court estate is a long-term goal and will take time, we are not aware of any widespread evidence yet that the court closures to date have been balanced out by improved efficiency and facilities in the remaining courts.”
“The experience of our members does not currently indicate benefits realisation on the ground from the end user perspective or that the aims are being fully or evenly partly met.”
It gets worse:
“…the overall flavour of ongoing and recent feedback from our Regional Liaison Committee (representing our members on the ground in our 43 regions using courts across England and Wales) about the courts can largely be themed around delays and poor customer service. For example, pending full online divorce and financial remedy application services, which are some time away, the arrears at the Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre is a particular cause for concern.
As at 30 May 2018, the centre was processing correspondence and emails received on 17th April; a decree nisi application received in late March will not go back to the parties until late July, with a pronouncement date in late August, early September.”
Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the new system. And Resolution has one more point about the modernisation programme:
“Most importantly, we are unaware of real evidence about the impact to date and potential impact of the programme on access to justice.”
It is remarkable that the effect of these revolutionary changes to our justice system, possibly the most radical ever, is not being fully monitored. All in all, as I said, a very worrying picture. Let us hope that the Committee take these points on board and that the message, in turn, is passed to HMCTS.
Resolution is not the only organisation or person to submit written evidence in connection with this inquiry to the Committee. You can find all of the submissions here (click ‘View all’ to see them all). I have not read all of the others, but I did notice the following.
Firstly, for the sake of balance, I should mention the submission by Professor Liz Trinder of the Law School at the University of Exeter, who has some good things to say about the recently launched online divorce project.
Secondly, the Transparency Project, the charity whose purposes include the advancement of education of the public, particularly in relation to family law, made a good point in their submission. One of the aims of the modernisation programme is to have more court hearings conducted via virtual means, such as video, telephone and online services, rather than in physical courtrooms. The Transparency Project points out that this could impact upon open justice, by leading to significant numbers of proceedings being conducted in effect in private, where they are currently conducted in public.
Finally, I should mention a submission by Mrs Melanie Benn, a criminal defence lawyer. If things are not entirely rosy regarding the modernisation of the family courts, they are certainly far worse when it comes to the modernisation of the criminal courts. I would recommend you read Mrs Benn’s submission (which you can find here), but here is a sample:
“I have been a criminal defence lawyer for 25 years. I can see that I will no longer want to do this job in a timeframe of 18 months to 2 years as I am horrified by the lack of justice that is being done at the moment and the lack of investment which means that none of the agencies I work with can do their jobs properly anymore. Everyone is so demoralised. All the suggested changes will, in my professional opinion, destroy the system that I have tried to uphold for so long. I cannot participate in that.”