Here in probation, we know a lot about 'reform' and in particular how it's destroyed a gold-standard public service. Clearly the new head of HM Courts and Tribunal Service in her first blog hopes for better things and in particular, her focus on 'truth' seems both refreshing and dare I say, a little naive?We're changing for a purpose - and listening too
As autumn begins, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learnt since I started as CEO of HMCTS last November. One of my main reflections is that we have not talked widely enough yet about our reform plans; but more importantly, I don’t think we’ve listened enough, or given enough ways for people who care about the system and how it works to help shape its improvement. I’d like to change that; and my own discussions and engagements on Twitter and elsewhere have shown that there’s a great appetite for this, but also much more we need to do to hear what’s being said.
So, to begin with, I propose to write a set of blogs that outline what we need to do, what we’ve done so far, what our plans are, and how to get involved in shaping HMCTS’s reforms for the future. My first, here, is focused on my first-hand observations of our courts and tribunals system, its strength and value, but also the deep challenges it faces and the reasons why I believe only radical reform can make it flourish for the future.
But to begin I want to say something more about why I am motivated to do this job.
I believe passionately that we need – now more than ever – a justice system that leads and inspires the world. Wider recent events (in particular, talk of a ‘post-truth world’) have, for me at least, made this underlying drive stronger and stronger. The justice system exists to pursue that slippery creature – the truth – and to use it to protect people from wrong.
Of course, as anyone knows who has compared the realities of the system to the perfect, tied-with-a-bow Agatha Christie resolutions of fiction, the truth is rarely found in its entirety; and an adversarial system comes at it differently from a continental inquisitorial one. But the endeavour is always to sift and weigh the evidence with integrity, to hear both sides of the story clearly and powerfully, and to get as close as possible to a just result that is not based on emotional sway or prejudice.
That hunger for truth – seeking after it, even when it is elusive – is the foundation of our freedom. The justice system is the means by which the truth sets us free.
So, I’m proud and privileged to do this job. Delivering the best possible courts and tribunals system seems never to have been more important. Ever since I started, I’ve had the opportunity to visit courts and tribunals in every region and in every jurisdiction (setting and keeping a personal goal of making at least one visit a week). On every visit, I’ve sat down with people – citizens using courts, staff, judges, magistrates, barristers, solicitors, volunteers, police and other partners – and discussed our service as it stands and our reform programme, asking them what they want to see from HMCTS in future.
I knew when I started that I was taking on both a challenge and an opportunity. The Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor had just published their joint statement setting out the overarching plan for reform (if you haven’t seen it, it’s a good summary of what’s in the reform programme).
I started in the job convinced by what my partners and predecessors told me about reform, but what I’ve learnt on my visits has made me even clearer on why it is needed. I’ve been consistently impressed by all those who work in the courts and tribunals I have visited – judges and court staff alike are passionately committed to what we do and want to make it better. But I’ve also seen the problems we have with poor IT, staffing that doesn’t match the demands of what they are asked to do and tired, dispiriting buildings. Although everyone I meet is dedicated to serving citizens well, it’s in the context of a system that feels long, slow and complex even in simple matters and is hampered by creaking paper processes that are hugely labour intensive, meaning other things suffer and errors multiply when staff are short. At worst, these things can make us look indifferent to other people’s time and trouble.
Out on visits, I’m often told by judges, magistrates and lawyers that local court staff work hard and do an impressive job under the circumstances, but that HMCTS as a whole doesn’t seem to be making it easy and is not always trusted to deliver well. In my view, we’re reaching the limit of the change we can make by good people in local courts working harder and trying harder. We need to make HMCTS more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts by making more fundamental change.
We often talk as though this change is all about IT, perhaps because that’s easy to explain concretely. We do of course need to move away from the paper-go-round and the endless re-keying of data from one ancient system to another, with all the attendant risks of mistakes. But it’s just as much about different ways of doing things, like using modern, professional approaches to update people on their case automatically, or make sure phones are always answered promptly and helpfully. It’s also about changing our attitude to what is ‘good enough’. For example, not accepting that it should be normal for cases to be scheduled and listed at times when parties cannot attend, or to drop out of lists repeatedly. It’s about using space well so that we can have fewer but better buildings, which are maintained properly, have the right facilities, and look smart and professional – reflecting the value of what goes on in them rather than undermining it.
The programme of change that my HMCTS predecessors and the judiciary developed together – and that we are now delivering – is one of the boldest plans in Government. It is about making the system work better, both by addressing a whole set of inefficiencies and failures and by giving people some entirely new routes to justice.
As I say, it goes well beyond IT, extending to people, skills and capabilities; to judicial ways of working (on which the judiciary lead); to our estates and to how HMCTS is organised as a whole. It involves a £1bn investment in return for saving some £250m a year by the end of the programme. Everyone who works in the system knows that there are many ways the courts can be run more efficiently and effectively, but big, up-front investment is needed to make real change.
Over recent years, we have had to tighten our belts – and people have worked hard to try to do so with as little detriment as possible. But fundamentally we have been trying to save money while using the same old inefficient systems, running more and more parsimoniously, and I think we are at the limit of what we can achieve that way. The pressure to be more efficient is not going away; but the reform programme gives us a chance to invest seriously in upgrading the way we work, so that we can deliver some ‘true’ efficiencies and genuinely have a better system that costs less, is sustainable, and is shaped by the needs of those it serves. The agreement we’ve secured with HM Treasury also – absolutely critically – means that every penny we receive from the sale of buildings will be reinvested in courts and tribunals.
Some elements of the reform programme are contested, particularly the details of how we might use our buildings better. Wholly new routes to justice – like the online court, as proposed by Lord Justice Briggs – also attract debate. On these, the most important thing we can do is to work openly and collaboratively with all who are interested (not just with the senior judiciary, though their support is unstinting, essential and welcome) as we change. We want to work with a much wider group of those interested to develop plans, test and try a wide range of new approaches and learn from trials and feedback.
I’m acutely conscious that there are still many people working in the system who haven’t seen or discussed the wider plans for HMCTS reform, or had a chance to shape them. Indeed, the recent debates on flexible operating hours made it clear that many people thought it was the main, or even the only, change we were proposing to make – and that we were focusing on that to the exclusion of all the rest. That debate has shown me that we need to do better at inviting and then listening to debate on the more difficult elements of reform (and I will have more to say in later blogs), but also to do better at explaining the rest and inviting suggestions and contributions, so that people do not mistake level of controversy for level of importance.
Other elements of the plan (most of them, in fact) attract almost no criticism in principle – very few people argue in favour of retaining paper-based processing, or argue against allowing people to track the progress of their case more easily, or improving systems for scheduling and listing. I do, though, get challenged on whether we can execute the plan well – what will make this more successful than Government (or even court) reform or IT projects of the past?
So, next week, I’ll set out more about the progress we are already making; and what has already changed for the better and how. The steps are small but they are a good harbinger of what is to come; and they begin to show (in deeds rather than words) that we can deliver the change we all want.
If you’d like to find out more about HMCTS reform, or share your views on how it should be shaped, please leave your comments below or send them by email to us. We are also considering more engagement activities for legal professionals and I’ve been asked to consider putting on an event on a Saturday, you can email to register your interest; if we get enough takers in principle we’ll set one up.