MPs lament “missed opportunities” of court reform programme

Courts: Investment and data needed

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have “missed opportunities to swiftly deliver an ambitious court reform programme”, MPs on the justice select committee say today.

They argued that many of the problems “could have been avoided if better data collection had been built into the system much earlier” and “significant investment” was now required.

In a report on court capacity following an inquiry launched in July 2020, MPs said “trying to work out what exactly is going on in the courts” had been a major problem.

“Ultimately, we were struck by witnesses telling us that there was not sufficient data, or analysis undertaken to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, such as improved digital access.

“Indeed, these criticisms extended into evidence relating to legal aid which was collected alongside evidence to this inquiry.

“This lack of data also affected the quality of evidence that we were able to take. Some witnesses were unable to fully answer questions we asked because the data was simply not available.”

The committee said that, as part of the reform programme, HMCTS was rolling out the Common Platform in the criminal courts and Core Case Data in the civil courts, family courts and tribunals.

“We recognise that the MoJ and HMCTS are taking steps to improve the data situation. However, we would stress that the level of improvement required will need a sustained focus and significant investment.”

The committee recommended that the government publish an update on the progress made on each project within the court reform programme, with completion dates and anticipated final cost.

On the physical court estate, MPs said the government should develop a comprehensive plan to improve quality, “funded on a multi-year basis”. The plan should “identify solutions for delivering essential maintenance without reducing physical capacity”.

To monitor court performance, an independent courts inspectorate should be re-established – HM Inspectorate of Court Administration was abolished in 2012 – covering all courts.

On the criminal courts, MPs called on the government to set out the number of Crown Court trials that would be needed every month to cut the backlog sufficiently for the target of 53,000 outstanding cases by March 2025 to be achieved.

There should be further targets on times from an offence being recorded to the ultimate conclusion and increased capacity for the Crown Court so it could deliver at least 110,000 sitting days a year for the next five years.

With lack of judges “the most pressing constraint in the courts system”, the MPs called for a detailed plan on increasing the number of Crown Court judges.

On the backlog in the Family Court, they said the government should produce an action plan on how it was going to expand capacity, together with a target on how outstanding cases could be reduced by 2025.

MPs said they were concerned that remote hearings in the Family Court were “having a negative effect both on court capacity but also on the quality of the justice itself”.

While “a significant proportion of users” preferred remote hearings, “the interest of justice should be placed above what is most convenient to users of the court”.

Following the publication of criminal justice scorecards, which the committee welcomed, the committee called on the government to publish local civil justice scorecards to improve timeliness in the civil and family courts.

On the county courts, the government should set out what steps it was taking to reduce delays and “improve the judicial, physical, digital and staff capacity”.

Justice committee chair Sir Bob Neill said: “In response to the huge backlog facing courts an impressive commitment to innovation has emerged. The speed with which Nightingale Courts have been established, the use of digital technology and attempts to boost mediation instead of going to family court are all welcome.

“However, this alone will not have the necessary impact to tackle the scale of the capacity issues facing courts.

“The Government must work with the judiciary to ensure that there is sufficient staff and court space to allow trials to take place and the lengthy backlog to reduce.

“The physical estate has been left to crumble for too long and must be made fit for purpose. There must be sufficient numbers of judicial and clerical staff to cope with the volume of cases… The court system is creaking and there needs to be coherent, consistent planning to fix it.”

Dr Natalie Bryom, director of research and learning at The Legal Education Foundation and a leading campaigner for better data in the justice system, said the report “rightly exposes how poor data collection from across the justice system continues to undermine the ability of the MoJ and HMCTS to predict and respond to problems relating to court capacity”.

She continued: “The absence of data and robust governance for managing data has a direct cost in human terms on victims, witnesses, defendants and all those who use the court system – and weakens our ability to shape a more effective and accessible justice system for the future.”

Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said the report “shines a light on the shameful state of our justice system”.

She continued: “We have long warned about the crumbling courts estate and welcome the committee’s recognition of the urgent need to ensure courts are fit for purpose. We also agree with the need to ensure better data collection to inform decision-making.

“A courts inspectorate could help highlight and prioritise problems in the justice system, and we look forward to discussing with the Ministry of Justice how such a body might work.”

Professor Chris Bones, the chair of CILEX, suggested that one way of increasing the pool of prosecuting lawyers was to remove the legislative barrier that prevents associate prosecutors from becoming Crown prosecutors.

“A new supply line of lawyers to meet the justice crisis would be enabled, with the public purse actually saving money by removing the needless present route of retraining them to become solicitors in order to do so,” he said.

Associate prosecutors – who gain their rights of audience through CILEX Regulation – conduct uncontested cases in the magistrates’ courts, with some able to conduct specified contested hearings, up to and including trials of summary-only non-imprisonable offences.

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