The government’s £1bn court reforms have had a “disappointingly slow” start in collecting the information required to ensure the justice system is fair, according to researchers.
They said those responsible needed to improve matters quickly.
But in a sign the government is aware it needs to act, the author of a report last year on the data collection element of the reform package has welcomed the acceptance of most of her recommendations.
Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research and learning at the Legal Education Foundation (LEF), spent three months on secondment at HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) as an expert on open data. She made 29 recommendations  on evaluating the impact of the online courts programme.
Central to her analysis was that the reforms’ success depended on building in data collection systems from the start rather than retrospectively.
LEF chief executive Matthew Smerdon said the “window of opportunity” for doing this was at “risk of disappearing completely” after “disappointingly slow progress at moving forward on any of the major recommendations in the past year”. If this happened, the goverment would have failed to meet its own target.
Responding to Dr Byrom’s report last week, HMCTS announced it had started to implement many of proposals and outlined its intention to involve academics in assessing progress.
The agency has committed to collecting data on the experience of vulnerable court users, among other things, although it said the Covid-19 pandemic had had an impact on the timeframe.
It accepted 17 of the recommendations, agreed with six of them and agreed “with the principle” of the other six.
Mr Smerdon said the pandemic should not be used as an excuse for slow progress, but instead highlighted why improving data collection was more important than ever.
The outgoing HMCTS chief executive, Susan Acland-Hood, thanked Dr Byrom and said some of the recommendations needed to be discussed further and touched on issues of national debate.
She added: “We have already made good progress in many of the areas highlighted and, alongside the senior judiciary and Ministry of Justice, will work carefully through all recommendations before setting [out] our plans in full.”
Dr Byrom said the HMCTS announcement was a “pivotal moment” for the government to embrace and fund a lasting data strategy. It was now time to “put words into action” and “step up the implementation” of her recommendations.
In her report last year, the academic said the “collection, analysis and sharing” of data was essential to confirm whether justice had been maintained or improved by the reforms, as well as ensure that existing legal duties about fairness and access to the justice system were met.
She concluded at the time: “The collection and publication of…data is critical to building trust in reformed processes and encouraging adoption of new services.”
Mr Smerdon said: “One of the government’s own key objectives, rightly, is to improve access to justice for all, whether that means white working class men in Wakefield, inner city black teenagers in Tottenham or disabled pensioners in Ipswich.
“If the recommendations in this report are not implemented, services will continue to be designed without the necessary evidence that shows that they are fair to people from different backgrounds.
“It will undermine the whole point of the reform programme to improve the judicial system, reduce costs and ensure everyone has access to justice. The government will have failed its own test.”
While he had no doubt the government was serious about fulfilling his promises, he said the LEF stood ready to help, adding: “The importance of taking action now cannot be understated. The success of the £1bn reform programme depends on it.
“We have the opportunity to do better and to make data, carefully collected, work harder, ensuring some of the most vulnerable groups in society get a fair hearing whilst being cost-efficient for taxpayers.”
The acting chief executive of HMCTS, Kevin Sadler, said: “I am pleased that we have been able to make specific commitments about the timeframes for many of these crucial areas, including collecting data on protected characteristics.”