Nobody could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic that hit in early 2020. Like every other organisation, we needed to adapt and adjust all our activity. More than ever, it was important to me, as corporate relations lead, that we engaged with our colleagues and partners across the justice system, including legal professional bodies. To face this scale of crisis, we had to work together – and we still do as we have emerged from lockdown and continue to work towards our recovery. Efficient, effective, two-way communication has been – and still is – a priority.
Identifying and communicating our priorities
As an organisation, we'd established good working relationships and patterns before the pandemic. This provided a solid foundation for the bespoke engagement needed in a time while a national emergency affected everybody’s lives.
During periods of crisis, challenges caused by uncertainty, ambiguity and lack of communication can quickly erode any good relationship you may have built up previously with your stakeholders. Good communication requires clarity, for example, on what your priorities will be during the crisis. It also requires openness, trust and a two-way communication.
In managing our response to COVID-19, we clearly identified, set out and communicated our priorities to our stakeholders, justice partners and public users. We confirmed we would:
- support decisions and directions made by the judiciary
- deliver key services
- protect the public and maintain confidence in the justice system
- minimise disruption and work with partners and stakeholders to deliver priorities amongst others.
Our emphasis shifted from court reform to COVID-19 response and recovery.
Working together through good engagement
Though some activity was briefly paused as we responded to the crisis, the challenges we faced in the justice system meant that we engaged with judiciary, professional court users and our partners across the legal system more than before.
At the start of the pandemic, we worked alongside Ministry of Justice and other departments to open channels of communication and set up daily COVID-19 meetings. Professionals from across the sector could dial in to ask questions, feed into our response and hear the latest updates on our safety measures. We worked with Public Health England, Public Health Wales, Witness Services, Prison Escort and Custody service among others, to make sure our public court users – whether they were witnesses, victims or defendants – knew what to expect when they came to one of our court or tribunal buildings.
Through the crisis period, we worked on building trust with our key stakeholders by being as transparent as we could be. We worked on being inclusive by tactfully drawing out different perspectives from stakeholders, ensuring their wide range of insights informed our recovery plans.
We used our traditional channels of communications like bulletins, newsletters, emails to deliver timely messages to all court users and general public. But our social media (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) and virtual meeting platforms were also important channels for crisis communication. During the early weeks of COVID-19, we published new daily operational updates on GOV.UK and emailed to our 31,000 subscribers.
We’ve recently published details of our communication and engagement activities from January 2020 if you’d like to find out more.
We didn’t always get it right – especially in the early days of the pandemic. But we listened to feedback and learned as we went along. We hosted COVID-19 webinars for legal professionals and adapted our engagement approach in response to the needs of those we were working with. We ensured good collaboration with our colleagues across the justice system– and the feedback we’ve had has been positive.
The Bar Council:
Thanks for HMCTS’ support throughout the last 14 months, it has been very much appreciated. You have committed to working constructively and effectively with the Bar Council. Your hard work has not gone unnoticed.
The Law Society:
The escalation route document has been a helpful resource… and listening to our concerns.
The Bar Council:
The daily jurisdictionally-focused meetings HMCTS (and other departments) arranged at the beginning of the pandemic were incredibly helpful.
The Bar Council:
We have found that engagement with the profession and procedures for distributing information improved as the pandemic developed.
Areas for improvement
Legal professionals raised the need to provide more and better data as ‘accurate and current data allows the Bar Council to do its job better.’ In response, we successfully developed a better way of sharing data that was useful and appropriate.
The Law Society said that their "preference is to always have more information where possible especially in terms of the spread of variants." This was something we recognised relatively quickly and worked hard to establish. We continue to do this in our regular court safety and recovery meetings with legal professionals.
Keeping up the good work
I’m very proud of how we’ve built and managed relations at a critical time, both in my role and across the department. We’re committed to continuing to engage wherever effective and in keeping with the guiding principles we set out and agreed with our stakeholders.
The Law Society:
The regular engagement with HMCTS – through Strategic Engagement Group meeting, bi-weekly court recovery and court safety meetings, monthly one to ones – has been really helpful in ensuring we have channels to raise any queries and concerns which need to be addressed in order for us to communicate these to our members. We would like the regular court recovery engagement to continue…particularly regarding the court recovery perspective.
We appreciate the support from legal professions, judges, public users and all stakeholder groups – we couldn’t have kept the wheels of justice turning without them. And we’re thankful for their commitment to continuing this two-way engagement in the future.
We’re currently updating our stakeholder engagement strategy for engaging with our external stakeholders after the pandemic, to ensure we communicate, engage and collaborate effectively with them.