ATTENDING A HMCTS REFORM ROADSHOW: “JUSTICE BY SNAPCHAT”?
There have been a series of HMCTS Reform Roadshows throughout the country. These are discussing reforms to courts and tribunals. Discussing “Virtual Hearings”; “Flexible Operating Hours” and “Scheduling and Listing” I attended the Roadshow in Leeds. I made notes. This is a purely personal account of the meeting in Leeds.
This was the first time I had been inside Leeds Magistrates’ Court. It is much nicer (and bigger) on the inside that the exterior suggests. I bumped into a colleague from the criminal bar, Philip Morris, this place is half-empty most of the time”, he told me. That tells a story in itself.
We then made our way to Court 13 where the meeting was being held – demonstrating either that HMCTS has no hold with superstition or has a wicked sense of humour.
THE SET UP
This was not a typical lecture series set up, but a series of tables. We were going to have to talk to each other (fortunately this is the North so not a wholly alien concept).
In fact we did talk to each other. On key topics in small groups which then put their views and ideas to the whole room.
The “Transformation Director North” told us what the issues are:
- This was an important opportunity to impact on the agenda.
- They want to engage “stakeholders” (and did apologise for using that word).
- What we have now is not fit for purpose there are “tired buildings” and “piles of paper” alongside “bits of the system that don’t work very well”
- A long, slow and complex paper system does not meet the needs of the 21st century.
I guess that everyone who works for the government has the debacle of the NHS computing system in mind (it was mentioned specifically).
The aim is to introduce reform by “small lego blocks”. Taking small steps and avoid big problems (and presumably big mistakes) on the way.
The aim of these reforms is to try them out initially. If they don’t work they won’t go ahead.
THE GUIDING PRINCIPLES
The system must be:
- Citizen Centred;
- Transparent and Accountable;
- Efficient and Sustainable;
- Future proofed and agile.
The reform costs are estimated at £1 billion.
EXAMPLES OF IMPROVEMENT
An example given was the online divorce petition.
The rejection rate when these are submitted by paper is 40%.
The online rejection rate was 4.8%.
Further, because it was possible to see where the problems lay the form, and system, could be improved that rate was reduced to less than 0.25%.
VIRTUAL HEARINGS: “JUSTICE BY SNAPCHAT”
This was part of our group discussion. I was on a table with a criminal barrister and two private law family solicitors.
(It is interesting that the solicitors’ concerns were to reduce the number of hearings where they had to attend at court and thus reduce the costs to their – privately paying – clients. The exact opposite of the public perception of lawyers – but will people listen?)
There were a number of options:
- Fully virtual;
- Video enabled hearings;
- Telephone hearings.
There was no intention to make virtual hearings mandatory. “Serious end” crime was also ruled out.
It was acknowledged by HMCTS that the present technology did not always work well. (I learned the phrase “legacy kit” – which means old technology that may not work so well).
There was some interesting discussion between the groups:
- Is a crime ever “low level” – and would this justify not having a hearing. It may well depend on whether you were the one being accused or not. (It was Philip Morris who was worried about “Justice by Snapchat” – he coined the phrase).
- Litigants in Person have a habit of agreeing to phone hearings and then not being available.
- Someone present was in charge of technology for the one of the largest law firms in the world. He explained he had major problems in getting a group of people together by video (and phone) in circumstances where they wanted to hold a meeting. The challenges would be much greater if anyone was not co-operating.
My own concern was more pragmatic. On the whole, in civil proceedings, the use of telephone hearings works well. Experience has taught the courts what is, and what is not, suitable for a telephone hearing. Needless to say that the judges on my Circuit (and possibly beyond) are all resplendent – as are (most) of my opponents. I doubt whether the HMCTS needs to spend millions on a video system just so I can see them in what is, to all intents and purposes a “telephone hearing”. Further I am fairly certain that they are not anxious to see me.
There must be a danger of video systems being introduced in circumstances where this is simply change for the sake of change.
FLEXIBLE OPENING HOURS
I cannot state that there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of this.
The criminal barrister pointed out that the court day did not start at 10.00 or 10.30. Witnesses had to be seen, shown the courtroom and certain key obligations met.
When asked why this was being considered we were told because “Ministers had asked them to”. There was no commitment to extend court hours, it was being considered and trialled.
At this stage someone pointed out that it was not as if the courts were physically over-burdened. The court we were meeting in was half-empty most of the time. Why not simply have more judges to deal with matters more quickly?
This, we were told, was a resource issue. There were only a finite amount of courts and judges. [Although the Government made nearly£102 million in profit from court fees last year].
Is there a practitioner that doesn’t have a complaint about listing? We discussed our complaints. There were lots of examples of problems caused. I am not sure that we came to any firm conclusions or recommendations.
The problem with listing is that it is one of the “dark arts”, with lists being formed in mysterious ways. I actually feel sorry for listing officers “I bent over backwards to get you that six week fixture and you tell me it has settled at 5.00 the Friday before it was due to start”.
As I said I am not sure that we came up with any clear answers. I suspect that the answer lies in more transparency. This includes a greater understanding from the profession of the issues that listing officers face.
A PERSONAL VIEW
I actually liked the staff involved, they were honest and engaging. They have been given a difficult job to do and are consulting on that task. The consultation process appears to be a genuine one and a response to formidable problems. Indeed the reason I believe the consultation is genuine is because the task is so formidable, help (and perhaps even inspiration) is needed.
I think we must guard against the notion that technology can, somehow, provide a universal solution. Half way through the meeting all the lights in the court went out – automatically. Those in the know started waving their arms around and the sensors (eventually) put the lights back on again. That is technology for you…
THE AIM – WE ALL SHOULD HAVE
What most of the practitioners present wanted was reasonable. A reasonable process, providing access to justice within a reasonable time at a reasonable costs.
THE ULTIMATE AIM
There is one real danger in consulting, and talking, about procedure alone. It does not, and cannot exist in a vacuum. It leads towards one ultimate goal: if matters do not settle or resolve we want our hearings to be heard by a reasonable judge who, in turn, has been given a reasonable amount of time to deal with the case. Any reform that loses sight of that central tenet will be positively harmful, not just to the justice system but to society as a whole.
IF YOU DON’T JOIN IN THE CONSULTATION PROCESS – THEN DON’T COMPLAIN AFTERWARDS
There is an online consultation process, available here . ( I have joined in. I am now fully entitled to complain afterwards).