As Delivery Director in Wales, I’ve seen first-hand over the last 18 months how challenging times bring people together to work towards a common goal. In Wales, we already have a close network of colleagues across the criminal justice system, but the pandemic tested and strengthened those relationships. We all focused our efforts on keeping the wheels of justice turning for those most in need.
The first lockdown in March 2020 placed an enormous pressure on the court system, as social distancing and safety measures limited the number of trials that could be heard in our buildings. Recognising the impact this would have on those waiting for their day in court, we established a Criminal Justice in Wales (CJiW) Recovery Group. The group – made up of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service, Youth Justice Service and Probation and Prison Service in Wales – worked together to make necessary changes and ensure we moved forward quickly in response to the pandemic.
A collaborative effort for a speedy response and robust recovery
With a shared ambition and joint approach to hearing the voices of all those relying on the criminal justice system in Wales, we’ve created a positive and constructive team from across the criminal justice system. This team supported our agile response as we strove to understand the changing external environment, put safety measures in place and keep our courts and tribunals operating safely and effectively.
We’re now seeing the effects of this 18 months of hard work – not least to increase capacity across Wales – and there are encouraging signs that we are well on the road to recovery. In fact, in the Magistrates Courts the delays caused by the pandemic have been dealt with and work is listed on receipt. In our Crown Courts, West and North Wales can only be described as a success story, whilst in South Wales, we continue to move at pace and are making steady inroads into the backlog.
And this is thanks to everyone's willingness to work together. From day one, CJiW partners worked together to minimise the impact of the pandemic on victims, witnesses, defendants, professionals and court users involved in active cases. No organisation could have done this without the other. The co-operation and speed of our recovery is a real testament to the CJiW partnership in Wales.
Together, we worked to:
- maximise the use of our existing estate – reopening over 80% of our Magistrates’ courtrooms for face-to-face hearings by May 2020
- ensure that by December 2020 over 75% of our Crown courtrooms were safely accommodating jury trials
- use remote or video hearings where appropriate
- support the central HMCTS team to find and secure venues for a Nightingale court within Swansea Civic Centre, a large juror assembly area in Cardiff City Hall and Portakabins for juror deliberation in Swansea and Caernarfon
- establish remote evidence sites where vulnerable victims and witnesses could provide evidence remotely, where appropriate
- agree modifications to courtroom layouts and custody areas that allow multi-handed cases to take place, so that by March 2021, trials involving up to seven defendants were heard in Caernarfon and Newport
Positive feedback for HMCTS
Regular dialogue between Welsh Government, Public Health Wales, and the operational arms of the Ministry of Justice have been critical in keeping our staff, court users and judiciary safe. Balancing strategic, operational and political input alongside trusted relationships proved invaluable in working together to resolve some of the complex challenges presented by the pandemic.
Alun Michael, the PCC for South Wales, wrote to me in March this year and said the following;
[The CJiW] group was extremely effective, because senior leaders in their respective organisations, took seriously, and personally, the need for urgent action and for doing things differently. It is the high-level personal commitment that engaged the sense of trust, mutual confidence and a belief in our ability to open doors to new approaches.
…The result is that HMCTS is seen in Wales as an organisation with authority that is held in respect and seen as a partner in delivering justice. The result of the work of the Recovery Group is that we now have a Steering Group whose work will continue into the future looking at how we can improve our joint working and the delivery of Justice in Wales.
And Dafydd Llywelyn, PCC for Dyfed Powys also recognised our joint working:
We are proud of the fact that our local Magistrates courts were amongst the first in Wales to resume normal levels of service. This is a significant achievement and one which we have delivered as partners to ensure that normal business has resumed as quickly and safely as possible and to continue delivering high quality services for victims.
Developments at Crown Court were understandably more complex, but proceedings have also moved swiftly, with Wales once again being at the forefront of developing emergency court provision and the first to return to pre-Covid operating levels. This is testament to the strong partnership working of our local Criminal Justice agencies.
Andy Dunbobbin, the PCC for North Wales said:
I am pleased to say that through outstanding partnership working in the Criminal Justice in Wales Group with all our agencies we have achieved what we set out to do; to ensure that victims and witnesses get the service they need and deserve.
Our Court backlogs are clear, and we have returned to business as usual now, whilst the environment still remains unpredictable and challenging. Furthermore, the use of technology and new ways of working have made this collaborative approach possible, showing the strength we have in our Criminal Justice partnerships.
I’m incredibly proud to receive such feedback from people who’ve worked with us through one of the most challenging times we’ve ever faced. And I'm grateful to all of my team, and our colleagues outside HMCTS, who work so hard to make sure justice is being delivered in a timely and effective manner across Wales.
The recovery group was extremely helpful to everyone – not just to court recovery – so we have turned it into a permanent steering group. We still meet regularly so that this joint working ethos continues to deliver justice for all across Wales.