Judges on the frontline of the court modernisation programme has expressed “serious concerns” that the £1bn committed to the reforms will run out before they can be completed.
They also highlighted the “flaws” in HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) vision to close ‘satellite’ courts in favour of large regional hearing centres.
In its written evidence to the justice select committee’s inquiry into the impact on access to justice of the programme, the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges (ADJ) stressed that it “could not be more supportive of modernisation”.
But the response – put together by ADJ senior vice-president Richard Lumb, who sits in Birmingham – offered a wide-ranging critique of what has happened so far and how the programme might develop in the future.
“The likely effects of the reforms on access to justice will be significant and far reaching, as they envisage a completely new way of dealing with cases with greater use of technology and a reduced court estate,” he said.
“Improved access to justice is a stated central aim of reform. Our experience to date is that as things stand during this period of transition the improvements to access to justice have been minimal and overstated in public pronouncements by HMCTS.
“These improvements have been outweighed by increased obstacles to access to justice through court closures, staff losses and delay in providing fully functional and properly supported IT which could provide a potentially adequate replacement.”
The ADJ said that, “regrettably”, the evidence to date has not backed up the promise of “advanced IT that works efficiently and is accessible to all”.
“Birmingham Civil and Family Justice Centre is held out as a flagship of the ‘Court of the Future’ project with expenditure of £8.1m.
“Despite this vast expense, the majority of hearing rooms in the building including courtrooms still record proceedings on primitive cassette machines with only a minority having digital recording equipment.”
DJ Lumb wrote that, with more than half of the £1.1bn budget having already been spent “for limited tangible benefit”, there were serious concerns that the money would run out before the programme can be completed.
“This is compounded by the extension of the programme from four years to now seven years with no extra funding.”
Outlining the ADJ’s concerns about the future, he continued: “If the service centres cannot cope and the backroom staff at the courts are pared back to the bare minimum, then chaos and complete inefficiency will ensue, with the effect of reduced access to efficient and timely justice – on the ground it is completely apparent that the best staff have left/are looking to leave because they feel the picture is bleak and all that experience is lost, with a wing and a prayer that the ‘new’ or less capable staff (service centre or court based) will be able to work at a high level of competence and efficiency.”
Further, if the IT did not work or suffered from outages “of the type recently encountered”, the same would apply. “There is no immediately available alternative.”
He went on: “If the digital-based system of record is compromised, the result would be catastrophic, with no paper-based backup or similar contingency in place leading to adjournments until records can be retrieved from a central back-up facility.”
Digital support officers appointed at every court were a false economy, DJ Lumb said.
They were HMCTS staff, not IT experts, “who have undergone minimal training to be available 25% of their working day”. This meant they were often unable to resolve issues.
The response outlined the practical consequences of cutbacks in court staff and the court closure programme, highlighting the difficulties encountered at Manchester Civil and Family Justice Centre, which now deals with all cases within a 30-mile radius.
There are 22 courtrooms for 27 DJs and a new listing system to address this has made working more inefficient, while risking further damage to judicial morale, the response said.
“The problems at Manchester have exposed the flaws in the original HMCTS vision to close ‘satellite’ courts in favour of a large regional hearing centre.
“The full impact needs to be the subject of independent and rigorous evaluation before there is any further attempt to apply this model elsewhere.”
The ADJ also outlined concerns about the adoption of more video-link technology. “The very people who really need a local court for urgent issues are likely to be those without digital skills or access to digital platforms or the money or organisational skills to get themselves to a faraway court or a video link,” it said.
“There is no substitute in real human situations to being able to see a vulnerable or apparently vulnerable person in the flesh and make an assessment. We don’t believe that could be re-created with anything like the same effect by video…
“What is clear already… is that video hearings will not be anything like as commonplace as HMCTS first assumed. There will certainly be no presumption in favour of hearings by video with a default position of the hearing in person.
“Rather the presumption will be the other way around with hearings in person unless they can be heard satisfactorily by telephone or by video link.”