Modernising courts and tribunals

Natalie Ceeney's keynote speech on modernising courts and tribunals from the Criminal Justice Management conference.

Natalie Ceeney, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, speaking at the Criminal Justice Management conference, September 2015

I’m delighted to be here today giving the keynote address at this event. This is the first event I’ve spoken publicly at since taking up post as Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service – and I’m honoured to be speaking with you today.

There aren’t many areas of life which matter more than justice and the rule of law. We take for granted in today’s society that if we are ripped off, there will be remedy. That if someone commits a criminal offence, there will be a process for holding them to account, and determining an appropriate punishment for the crime. And that this will all be done impartially and consistently across the country, by an independent and trusted judiciary.

The arena in which much of this plays out is our courts and tribunals. Across England and Wales we have a plethora of courts which allow these debates, trials and decisions to be made. And, although as CEO, I regularly see our courts and tribunals criticised – as do all CEOs – that criticism is rarely of fairness or of lack of impartiality.

But we shouldn’t take this for granted.

What we have in England and Wales is not in place everywhere across the globe, and it won’t stay in place without vigilance. Over the history of this nation, our justice system has evolved and developed to keep pace with the needs of society. It is critical that we continue to have a court and tribunal service which is fit for the needs of today’s society – upholding and being seen to uphold the rule of law, fairly and consistently.

Natalie Ceeney, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, speaking at the Criminal Justice Management conference, September 2015
Natalie Ceeney, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, speaking at the Criminal Justice Management conference, September 2015

So, what are the challenges?

I joined HM Courts and Tribunals Service in January of this year. In many ways, I joined a relatively new organisation. HM Courts & Tribunals Service was only created in 2011. It brought a number of bodies together into one, finalising a period of major consolidation. In fact, if you go back 25 years, what is now one body, running the courts and tribunals for England and Wales, was over 150 different entities, all run to different standards, different processes and varying levels of efficiency.

But in many ways, HM Courts and Tribunals Service is still a very old service. The senior judiciary have regularly commented to me that, when they walk into a court building now, it looks little different from the court in which they trained as a junior barrister 40 years before. We still have a system dependent on paper. Although we have Wi-Fi and screens now in most of our criminal courts, large elements of our work remain manual, or done on green-on-black IT, requiring our newly hired graduates to learn, for the first time, how to use an IT system without a mouse or a browser. It’s not a huge surprise that our new Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, commented in his first speech that:

…thinking of those huge bundles, those snowdrifts of paper held in place by delicate pink ribbons, indeed thinking of the mounds of paper forming palisades around the hard-pressed staff who try and bring some sense and order to the administration of justice, it is impossible not to wonder what century our courts are in.

The problem is that this is more than archaic. It is no longer good enough to support the fair administration of justice.

You don’t have to have much to do with our courts to see the waste and inefficiency.

We have court buildings across the country which are no longer fit for purpose, with very poor utilisation and inadequate facilities. We have thousands of extremely hard working and dedicated staff whose jobs are to handle and process mounds of paper – whether to type in handwritten forms as a result of us not having a decent online interface or manually check benefits entitlement because we don’t (yet) have the interconnectivity with DWP’s database. Police officers come to court to give 10 minutes of evidence in person, giving up half a day from the beat. We hold physical tribunal hearings for immigration appeals with full legal representation, despite the appellants being physically out of the country. And we transport prisoners across the country, at huge cost, for a 5 minute bail hearing in front of a judge.

But what worries me more is the human cost. In our criminal courts, witness, victims and defendants can wait years for a case to come to trial, causing chaos to lives as people wait for a decision before they can work out how to move on. In our civil courts and tribunals, people in debt attend court in person – often losing a day’s wages – worsening their situation. After the death of a family member, completing a probate form in complex legalese can add huge unnecessary stress. And I hear on a daily basis about just how tortuous the process of trying to get fees refunded can be for those needing to use our courts but who receive low incomes.

Quite simply, despite the valiant efforts of our staff and the judiciary, our courts just aren’t good enough for today’s society.

So, what is the future?

‘Court and tribunal reform’ has been talked about for some years now. There has been work happening – including installing Wi-Fi and screens in our criminal courts, and the start of an ambitious IT programme to create a common case flow infrastructure to enable information to flow seamlessly from the police, to the CPS and then to the courts. But what we need to do is far more radical than adding a few new screens and digitalising today’s processes. We need to fundamentally rethink our model for the 21st century.

I am very fortunate in that the two individuals to whom the HM Courts and Tribunals Service is accountable, Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Justice, and John Thomas, as Lord Chief Justice, are both themselves radical reformers. With their support, and their leadership, we are developing an increasingly clear vision of what we need for a court and tribunal service which meets the needs of today’s society.

Very positively, these ideas are not developing in isolation. Over the past few months we’ve had publications from Professor Richard Susskind’s working group on online dispute resolution, the Justice group’s report on justice in the age of austerity, as well as Brian Leveson’s report on the criminal courts. There is an increasing consensus around what we need of our courts, to provide a justice infrastructure which is truly better – but which, by eliminating waste and inefficiency, also costs less.

What I am not doing today is sharing with you detailed plans for how a twenty first century court service will work. That is firmly work in process. But we do have some increasingly clear ideas, which both the Secretary of State and Lord Chief Justice have spoken about in recent speeches. It’s these ideas I would like to share with you today.

The first is that we are clear that our system needs to be built around those who use it.

I don’t mean (just) for the legal profession, but for the ultimate users of our service – whether defendants or victims in our criminal courts, international businesses defending intellectual property claims, a couple divorcing or someone challenging an eviction order.

This is simple to say, but profound in application. In our criminal courts it means we need to minimise delays in bringing cases to a conclusion, for the benefits of defendants, witnesses and victims alike. Across all of our courts it means we need far better online navigation of what to do and how to get issues resolved – so that cases are resolved without court where appropriate, and so that people enter our court system knowing how it works and what to expect. We need plain English ‘forms’, presented in the form of straightforward questions, which don’t require a law degree to complete. It means that we should only ask court users once for information and, if government already has the information (such as knowing whether you are on benefits or not), we shouldn’t ask you to resend it. And for international companies using our courts it means meeting their need for speed and certainty of scheduling, so that we can compete internationally with the growing legal markets in Germany and Singapore. Not only will all of this make our courts more accessible, but it will also eliminate waste, duplication and error as well as keep us internationally competitive.

Secondly: our system needs to be accessible – easy to use, but digital in design.

Today’s court system has been built around a physical paradigm. We spend a third of the court and tribunal service budget on running and maintaining our buildings. And last year, over a third of courts sat for less than 50% of the time available to them. But for many of our services, that physical paradigm no longer feels like the right answer, not just because it’s expensive, but because it is no longer the right answer for good justice. Britain has the highest rate of online service usage in the world – over one quarter of all non-food goods are now purchased online and 85% of Britons are online. We need to enable a police officer give evidence by video, taking 10 mins of time off their working day, rather than the current half day. We need to stop running prison vans to transport prisoners to and from prisons for a 10 minute plea hearing which can be done online. And we need to, as Brian Leveson recommended in his superb review, limit what happens in the criminal court room to just trials and complex sentencing.

And in our civil courts, as both the Justice and Susskind Reports recommend, we need to learn from the ombudsman model, whereby huge numbers of relatively low value or low stakes cases are resolved simply, quickly and cheaply by avoiding hearings all together. For a dispute between neighbours about the height of a leylandii tree boundary, iPhone evidence and a video hearing may prove far more effective than the parties appearing in a court miles from the site in question. And, for our family courts, we need to make it as straightforward to claim uncontested probate as to submit a tax return or renew your annual car tax.

Thirdly, we need to introduce clearer proportionality into our system – while making sure that all of our services are consistently good.

We clearly need the full majesty of our criminal courts for our most complex and our most horrific criminal trials. But, as we are showing through the new streamlined summary justice procedures, they feel disproportionate and unnecessary for traffic offences. As Richard Susskind’s report, Brian Leveson’s report and the Justice report all suggest, we could deal with many cases across all spheres of the justice system in a far more proportionate way – using modern technology to consider evidence, using hearings only where necessary, and using digital channels to support work across all of our courts.

And across all of our courts, we need to ensure that our system remains transparent, accountable and independent. Open, fair and transparent justice is critically important so that justice is seen to be done, and not just ‘done’. But in today’s society there may be far better ways of ensuring open justice than simply saying “we have buildings in case you want to turn up and watch”.

What are we doing?

We’ve not been idle.

Over the past year we’ve installed Wi-Fi into court rooms. It sounds like a relatively small thing, but it will mean judges, lawyers and other professionals can use case management systems and secure email accounts from the courtroom – without having to adjourn and duck out.

We’re equipping magistrates’ courts with the equipment they need to display digital material – videos, photos, maps, audio files, CCTV footage, emails. Presenters – whether the prosecution, defence, or expert witnesses – can quickly link up their own devices to our system, and display material on a large wall-mounted screen. This is vital for a 21st century court! The final installations will happen before Christmas.

Over the last six months we’ve upgraded the video link between police sites, prisons and 64 of our most business-critical Crown and magistrates’ courts. This is a cost-effective and safer alternative to the large-scale movement of people between police stations, prisons and the courts. Significantly, we’ve already achieved a lot: 45% of all relevant hearings are already being managed in this way, a figure that has risen every month so far.

As HMRC clamps down on tax avoidance, that means more work for the tribunals. We’ve introduced a new case management system in partnership with HMRC to deal with the increased demand on our services.

To reduce the amount of court time spent on low-level, uncontested offences, we’ve introduced an online service for people who want to plead guilty to a driving offence. It’s being piloted in Manchester, Salford, Cheshire, Cannock, Bradford and Keighley, Luton, Aldershot and Newport.

We’re piloting extended sitting hours in Nottingham. We’re making it easier for people to apply for help with court, tribunals and probate fees. We’re introducing new facilities so victims of sexual crime can give evidence from somewhere they feel safe and comfortable. We have online dispute resolution in place for small claims. Magistrates will soon be able to book their hearings online. I could carry on!

But if we are serious about the scale of transformation we need, we need to go far further.

The government said they would continue with the modernisation of the courts and tribunals – to the sum of £375m investment over the next 5 years. We have been finalising the business case to secure this funding, looking closely not just at the investment needed but also the benefits it will deliver, for submission in the current spending review process. Securing this investment, and delivering this transformation, forms one of the top priorities for the Ministry of Justice, and has formed a major part of our spending review submission.

This investment will primarily go into digital infrastructure. But we will fund much of this transformation from within the HM Courts and Tribunals Service budget by reallocating our own resources. We are currently consulting on the consolidation of our court estate, moving work from underutilised buildings into better nearby buildings which we believe will give a better service. This will free up buildings that we don’t need, which we can sell. The proceeds of these sales will go straight into this reinvestment into our future IT infrastructure and modernisation programme.

I’m under no illusions. This isn’t going to be straightforward. As we change the way we work, it will affect not just ourselves, but our partners, and those who work with us – including the CPS, the prison and probation services, the Bar, and the solicitors, local authorities across Britain, other government departments, as well as anyone potentially exposed to a dispute in Britain. We are very conscious that the courts and tribunals are an integral part of an overall system – and that we need to make that system work as a whole. But in my 8 months here as CEO of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, I have yet to meet any partner, stakeholder or user of the court service who has told me anything other than “the courts and tribunals need radical change”.

So, let me end by going back to the beginning.

Our courts matter.

There are not many areas of life which matter more than justice, and our courts and tribunals provide the forum in which large numbers of disputes are resolved, and justice determined. We owe it to society, to defendants, to witnesses and victims, as well as to citizens across all walks of life, to deliver a court and tribunal Service which enables the rule of law to be upheld in a 21st century society.

We’re committed to developing and improving our courts to do just that. It’s not just about digitising and introducing technology to streamline processes, but also about rethinking processes for today’s society.

Doing this will, of course, reduce costs. But, far more critically, it will deliver better justice.

Published 23 September 2015