Ten years ago, when I visited courts and tribunals across the country, I’d carry a mound of paperwork to keep me busy on the train. Now, I can pick up my laptop, wander through the office and read my emails. I am never out of contact (which can be a blessing and a curse). Life has changed, and as we pass our 10 year milestone from when HMCTS was formed, I’d like to reflect on our achievements.
The system we inherited was complex. It was designed by lawyers for lawyers, not for ordinary people on the street. So, from the outset, it was important to make accessing the justice system more straightforward. To ensure members of the public could navigate it, without always having to pay for someone to show them how. That’s been one of the main goals of the HMCTS reform journey.
Of course, there were early practical challenges for HMCTS. We needed to increase capacity and help judges get acquainted with the new organisation. We needed to demonstrate that every part of the service was equally respected and valued. But there were also early benefits. We were able to start sharing resources across a larger organisation, helping us to respond better to peaks and troughs in demand.
Technology has developed in the past decade and it’s only going to get better. Bandwidth will only increase, and connectivity will keep improving. We’re just starting to see the potential of remote hearings and the digitisation of everyday services. They will become easier and more effective as we continue to develop them.
The divorce service is a prime example of making our services easier and quicker. We redesigned the application form and made it easier to fill in by taking out the guesswork and writing it in plain English. We used to send back 75% of paper divorce applications because they were filled in incorrectly. Now we return less than 1% of online applications. We need to keep at it, and we need services where people can fill in any application correctly first time, every time.
Technology means we now have much more information on how many people are contacting us, whether they’re waiting too long to get through to someone on the phone, or how effectively we’re answering their enquiries. We didn’t have that that ten years ago. This data is important because it helps us understand whether our services are straightforward enough, where pinch points are and how we can better manage our resources to cope with changes in demand. Using data effectively is something Antonia Romeo, our new Permanent Secretary, is passionate about too, and you’ll be hearing about her priorities for the next ten years soon.
Of course, we can’t talk about how technology has changed us in the past decade without considering the past year too. It’s been a huge challenge, but it’s also helped us in ways we could never have expected. Take divorce and probate services, which continued during the pandemic because they support remote working. We’ve seen challenges in other jurisdictions that can’t yet work remotely and, for now, are dependent on paper , so we have a real opportunity to build resilience there.
The past few months have made many of us reflective. I’m proud of the way we’ve managed the implications of the pandemic. The commitment, bravery and support people have given each other is awe inspiring. But our ability to do that was built on a lot of other achievements, such as reform, and the way we’ve built our teams over the last 10 years.
I often wonder what HMCTS will be like in another ten years. The honest answer is I don’t know, but I am confident that the process of reform will be complete. We’ll be a modern organisation that our partners find easy to work with and that young people want to join to develop their careers. Technology will be doing things I can’t even think of and there will be a whole host of new faces leading the way. What will stay the same is the commitment of everyone involved in the justice system to support the people who rely on it.