A modernised court and tribunal service

Natalie Ceeney's speech on modernising the courts and tribunals service, delivered at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.

Natalie Ceeney, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service

I’m delighted to be here today speaking to you about modernising courts and tribunals at this event.

As you have heard from all the speakers here today, there is a real desire and requirement to radically improve our justice system, and make it truly better for all users.

We’ve heard from Sir Brian Leveson, about how we can – and are – working to improve the technology and processes we use in our criminal courts.

Professor Richard Susskind has built on this theme, and highlighted the rapid advances in technology that are changing the world around us – and how the justice system sorely needs to catch up. We’ve heard from Andrea Coomber about how we need to change our understanding of what access to justice is in the 21st century, and what this means for us in designing our future services. And we’ve also heard from Baroness Newlove about the human impact of when our services fail our users – and the devastating impact this can have.

Everything we’ve heard today makes it evident that there really 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. But, put quite simply - despite the valiant efforts of our staff and the judiciary- the system under which we operate our courts and tribunals just isn’t good enough for today’s society. Fortunately, as we’ve heard today, there is real appetite and desire for change at all levels of the justice system, led by ministers, by the judiciary and by those of us in leadership positions within each service. We need to use this consensus for change to drive real action. I’d therefore like to share with you how we do plan to transform the way our courts and tribunals work, so that we can truly deliver better justice.

So, first off, the challenges…

When I joined HM Courts and Tribunals earlier this year, in many ways I was joining a relatively new organsation. HM Courts and Tribunals Service was only created in 2011 – bringing together a number of bodies together into one, finalising a period of major consolidation.

But in many ways, it is still a very old service. As many of the senior judiciary have commented to me, and as speakers today have echoed, 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.

Although we have Wi-Fi and screens now in most of our criminal courts, our systems across our courts and tribunals service are still dependent on paper and 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.

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 return forms which don’t have all the information because the form is far too complex for a non-professional (and often too complex for the professional too). 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 without challenging whether they are needed.

As our new Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, commented in his first speech:

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.

And what worries me most about this is the human cost. Victims, witnesses, and defendants can wait years for a criminal case to come to trial, causing chaos to lives as people wait for a decision before they can work out how to move on. As Baroness Newlove has highlighted, our courts can be intimidating, unfriendly places which we don’t do enough to support people through. 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 remitted can be for those needing to use our courts but who receive low incomes.

Baroness Newlove’s powerful account today of her personal experience illustrates just why it is so essential that we keep people who experience and use our service at the very centre of our service and any plans for reform. As she said, we have some brilliant staff in HMCTS who go out of their way to support those who use our court system. But, as she also said, they often do so despite our processes, not because of them. We could do far more to make our courts more accessible and less intimidating if we rethink our processes with court users in mind.

So, what have we been doing?

We’ve not been idle.

Over the past year we’ve installed Wi-Fi into our criminal 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; we are grateful for the support of the magistracy in adopting these changes.

Over the last 6 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 since its introduction.

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.

50 courts are now able to check online whether people are receiving benefits when they consider a fee remission, making things vastly simpler for our customers and our staff. In a few months this will be the norm.

To reduce the amount of criminal 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 we need to go much further.

In order to provide a courts and tribunals service that meets the need of society today and in the future we need something far more radical. We need to fundamentally rethink our model for the 21st century.

This brings me to the future for courts and tribunals.

I am very fortunate in that the 2 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.

What I am not doing today is sharing with you detailed plans for how a 21st 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.

These ideas are not developing in isolation; as you have heard today from Professor Richard Susskind, Andrea Coomber, Richard Monkhouse and Sir Brian Leveson there is an increasing consensus around what we need of our courts.

The first is that our system needs to be built around those who use it. By this I mean the ultimate users of our service – whether victims or defendants in our criminal courts, international businesses defending intellectual property claims, a couple divorcing or someone challenging an eviction order – as well as the legal profession.

Although this is simple to say, it is profound in application.

We need to minimise delays in bringing cases to a conclusion in our criminal courts – for the benefits of victims, defendants and witnesses alike. Across all of our courts 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 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. And we should only ask court users once for information and, if government already has the information (such as knowing whether someone is on benefits or not), they shouldn’t be asked to resend it. To compete internationally with the growing legal markets in Germany and Singapore we need to meet the need of international companies for speed and certainty of scheduling.

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.

Not only is this expensive but, for many of our services, 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 minutes 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 discussed by Andrea and Richard earlier today 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 altogether. 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”.

So, to close …

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.

But 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”.

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.

As Brian Leveson has said clearly, this will require investment. Securing this investment is one of the Ministry of Justice’s top priorities in the Spending Review.

It will also require us working together. As many have said, the courts don’t work in isolation. We need strong judicial engagement and leadership. We need approaches, which work for the defence, for local authorities, for the CPS and for witnesses and victims.

And, of course, we need to do this in a way which balances pace with the need to get delivery ‘right’.

In today’s financial climate, if we can do this we can reduce cost. But that’s not what’s driving us. What is driving us in the aim of delivering better justice.

Published 15 October 2015