Lack of data leaves courts “flying blind” on impact of Covid, MPs told

Byrom: HMCTS chose not to collect data

The courts system is failing to collect vital information about the performance of judges and trials during the Covid-19 pandemic, an expert has told Parliament.

Speaking to a justice committee enquiry into court capacity, Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research and learning at the Legal Education Foundation, said HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) had made a “deliberate choice” not to collect the data, leaving observers “flying blind”.

She said data that was unknown included the number of judges who had sat since March, there was insufficient data on the number of remote trials that had taken place, the hearing duration, while no data had been collected on the users of the justice system.

This was despite the fact that, in 2019, HMCTS had committed to collecting the information that was missing, she told MPs.

It was not because it was impossible to know the information or too difficult to collect: “It’s because the court service has chosen not to collect the data that would enable us to assess the impact on access to justice.”

She said it was “the equivalent of a hospital going into the pandemic choosing not to collect data on the number of surgeons it has or the number of operations that have taken place”.

Further, a failure to follow up on people’s view of how contact with the courts had gone was also something that needed to be addressed. “We need people to trust in the court system and we do not have good data on what their experience has been.”

In 2019, Dr Byrom laid out a blueprint for evaluating the impact of the government’s online courts programme, following a three-month secondment to HMCTS as expert adviser on open data.

Last year, she reported a “disappointingly slow” start to collecting the information required.

Also before the committee, Dr Mavis Maclean, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, said there was evidence that remote video hearings had benefited young people appearing in family hearings, especially teenagers, who felt comfortable with the technology and “less distressed” as a result.

Meanwhile, speaking to the committee’s separate inquiry into the future of legal aid, Dr Vicky Kemp, principal research fellow at the University of Nottingham, said collecting data in criminal cases was also important, particularly in relation to solicitors and voluntary interviews of suspects in police stations.

She believed a key area of data – the “overarching scrutiny and monitoring” of this very early stage in a criminal case – was missing. “This is information that needs to be captured”.

It would be relatively simple to acquire the data, because it already existed in police custody records.

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