In my last long blog post I wrote about what we’ve done already as we start to reform courts and tribunals.
We’ve launched our first set of online routes to justice (for applying for divorce and probate, making tax appeals, launching civil money claims, and tracking the progress of social security and child support appeals), and are getting good feedback from people who are using them on their simplicity and speed. We’ve put in place the first pieces of a truly end-to-end system for criminal justice, that links police, the CPS and the courts, and are trialling it in Liverpool. We’re also changing the way we work to support these new services.
We’re investing in repairs and renovations of many of our court buildings, and where we had court building that were not well-used, we have sold them at the pace we said we would, for more than we undertook to raise, and are reinvesting all of the proceeds.
But, though the progress we’ve made is good, the change we want to make is thoroughgoing and ambitious; and there is much more to do.
So in this blog post I’ll talk about what comes next. The work we have done was ‘Stage 1’ of our plan – where we established that we could build good systems for some fairly straightforward things, and created things for one jurisdiction that can later be spread to others (for example, the ‘engine’ of the system we have built to track progress in social security appeals can be used to make similar tracking systems for other kinds of case, without starting again from scratch).
The next 18 months or so are ‘Stage 2’. That means taking the things we’ve begun to develop so far and building them out further – so, for example, we have got a system that allows online applications for divorce; in the next stage, we need to improve it by moving away from ‘print and post’; expand it from a limited ‘private beta’ to a ‘public beta’ available to everyone; and add the next component, which allows for financial remedy to be dealt with through the same system, just as easily. It also means starting a new set of projects – for example, delivering digital systems to support public family law cases from end to end. Below, I set out, by jurisdiction, the main things we will be doing through the next stage – all of which will involve wide testing and consultation.
Over the next 15 months, we will extend the functionality of the Common Platform in the pilot area, including the type and number of cases passing through it. This will mean legal professionals will have early access to details of their clients’ charges and initial case material online. Work will also start to plan the extension of the system into other Crown Court centres, and magistrates' courts.
We will build on the work to digitise the single justice process in Lavender Hill for Transport for London fare evasion cases to include TV Licensing and DVLA cases enabling greater numbers of high-volume, low-level offences to be dealt with more efficiently.
We’ll also be working with the police, initially in the South-East, to develop, test a ‘virtual hearings’ system that will more consistently allow defendants to appear before magistrates via a video link from a police station to decide whether to grant bail or place on remand; this will also allow representatives to appear remotely, including talking to their clients before the virtual hearing from anywhere.
In family courts, divorce applicants will be able to resolve uncontested cases fully online and resolve financial arrangements too, and we will also extend our early system for probate so that everyone can apply for and receive probate online, quickly and easily.
We are now beginning work on a new project on public family law, working closely with local authorities, practitioners and groups representing those who have been through the system, to support seamless digital working to and through court, so that evidence can be submitted, bundled and shared electronically and cases can be managed much more securely and effectively. This will help us to test and develop a core document management system for the family courts that can then be extended for use in private family law and other jurisdictions and will also enable in-court digital presentation of evidence.
Within the scope of the public law project, we will also digitise the adoption process for both public and private law cases, again developing systems to manage these cases more securely and effectively. Once all the parts are complete, they will fit together – so cases can move seamlessly from one process to another, for example from the issue of a public law case through to a final adoption order, using the same system.
In civil justice, people will be able to begin, respond and manage their civil money claims online. We’ll also expand the version of the system designed specifically for legal professionals representing many claims. We will also provide an online negotiation and settlement tool, and expect to see many more people getting redress quickly and simply. The system will also start to support cases as they go to and through court, providing a new ‘core case management’ system for the civil courts which will move us away from the current very paper-heavy operation and start to allow fully digital working (so that, for example, advocates can access case information and work on it from anywhere).
In tribunals, people appealing social security and child benefit decisions will be able to make their application fully online, track the progress of their case by text, email or online, and, if judged appropriate, take part either in a virtual hearing, or in an online hearing with the judge able to ask questions through rapid messaging, allowing much faster decision-making in a system where delays can bring real hardship. The system will also support physical hearings for those that need them (and judges will always have discretion over the way cases should be heard).
Similar systems will developed for other tribunals. Virtual hearings (with all parties able to attend from anywhere) are currently being technically tested for immigration and asylum case management and once testing is complete will be further developed for wider pilots, for use where judges deem it appropriate.
Across all jurisdictions
As set out in an earlier blog, we are also starting work on a project to improve scheduling and listing in all jurisdictions – designing systems but also processes and ways of working that will support the judiciary in making their listing decisions with better information, which we intend should allow for more responsiveness and better, data-supported decisions on how heavily to list to avoid wasting the time either of judges, or of those coming to court. We are conscious that many will want to engage in this piece of work, and are planning a programme of roadshows and co-creation events beyond our usual user research and testing.
We will learn from and extend a recent pilot on how we can use existing courtrooms better within the existing court day; and will also test and evaluate some different forms of extended court hours as I detailed in my blog earlier this week – in which I also asked for comments and feedback on what I know is a contentious topic
Our reforms, taken together (and whether or not we extend sitting hours anywhere) will mean we need less physical court space (and as some have pointed out, we have spare space now). We will consult on the principles we should use when deciding whether to close further court buildings, using independently assured methodology for testing travel times and access. But proposals for any actual closures that depend on changing ways of working will come after – not before – those changes have been made and are taking effect.
We will invest the proceeds of sales in reform and upgrading and improving our existing buildings; and we will change the way we approve court maintenance so that we can get things done more quickly. We will also publish a ‘design guide’ that sets out the blueprint for future court buildings, so that as we improve we do so in line with a clear picture of what good looks like. We will use good evidence to improve things like signage, wayfinding and ‘look and feel’ to make our buildings easier to navigate and use.
We will also start to reorganise ourselves in response to these new ways of working. We will support digital services with a friendly voice on the phone, or at the end of a ‘chat’ function; and will radically improve how easy it is to get through to us, and find out what’s happening. We’ll have more staff doing this work, and administration of cases started online, in larger, purpose-designed places; and fewer in small, dispersed administrative teams.
We will work with Good Things Foundation to provide specialist, local face-to-face help for those who need it, including in particular to support those who cannot easily use digital services – we have already contracted with them and they are starting work to support our earliest services.
And finally, we will build excellent data systems into all our new systems – so that we can keep track of how well they and we are working; learn and improve; and measure the right things (for example, finding ways of measuring and then reducing other people’s wasted effort, not just our own use of buildings or speed of resolution).
We’ve clearly got a great deal to do. As we do it, we will remain true to a set of clear principles that we – with the judiciary – set out as we began the programme. We will be:
- Citizen-centred: what we do should be built in partnership with and around the needs of those who use it (the first focus should always be the citizen using the system, but this principle also encompasses the judiciary, legal professionals, business and state users, and those who work in HMCTS)
- Accessible: we should be making the system easier to use for everyone, and removing barriers of complexity and delay; where we build digital systems, they should use the best possible digital design, tested and iterated with those who are going to use them, and always provide help for those who are digitally excluded
- Proportionate and segmented: with fast, fleet digital routes where speed and simplicity is what people want most (no need for face-to-face hearings just to manage process or progress cases); and the full face-to-face ‘majesty of the court’ for serious and complex matters (including family cases involving the contested future of a child; and serious criminal cases, including all Crown Court trials and sentences)
- Just: never compromising on what is right, and building on the best traditions of what is the best justice system in the world
- Transparent: supporting clear lines of sight and good accountability (including allowing suitably anonymised data to be used for research and improvement)
- Sustainable: working efficiently, at the right cost for the work being done, so as to be funded sustainably for the future
- Future proof: building systems that are flexible and adaptable, and having the capability to make rapid change in future in response to feedback, external change, and new ways of doing things
The changes we are making are far-reaching. The task is to make justice easier, faster, and simpler to access, underpinned by slicker and more reliable processes, using the best the modern world can offer. But they do not change the underpinning principles of our system, which remain precious and enduring, and must be our most fundamental yardstick in all we do.
I have written a lot in recent blogs about the importance of engaging and discussing what we are doing, and providing ways to get involved – like the roadshows currently happening to talk about and demonstrate the Common Platform Programme. We’re also looking for legal professionals who represent defendants in civil money claims for our research, if you’re interested please sign up now. Everything I set out above will come with ways to get involved – whether early on in setting out what’s needed, or later in testing early versions of new systems. If you’ve got a bit of the programme you’d particularly like to be involved in, or get updated on, please email us with your details.