Kerry Underwood

WRITTEN SUBMISSION FROM THE ASSOCIATION OF HER MAJESTY’S DISTRICT JUDGES TO THE JUSTICE COMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS

with 2 comments


I set out below extracts from the written submissions of the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges to the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, and I also give links to two of Gordon Exall excellent blog posts on this and related matters.

We provide examples of the practical impact of court closures on courts of different sizes throughout the country. It is clear to us that these practical implications were not properly thought through or given proper weight before courts were closed.

Video hearings are going to be far less likely than first envisaged by HMCTS. Ad hoc arrangements have demonstrated the problematic issues that are now to be addressed in formal pilots in Birmingham and Manchester. Used correctly, they could provide a useful additional resource but not a full substitute for hearings in person.

Paperless systems are not an end in themselves but require ease of navigation and use which does not exist at present.

There is a need for continuous independent and robust evaluation particularly concerning access to justice at key stages. This could perhaps be best conducted through academic studies. Until now, assessments have almost exclusively concentrated on financial savings to be made which although important, should not outweigh access to justice in a civilized society.

– see Written Submission From The Association Of Her Majesty’s District Judges

 

Executive Summary

11. 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.

13. One objective of Reform is to reduce and where possible, eradicate the use of paper files. However that cannot be an end in itself if it leads to inefficiencies and inadvertently obstructs or denies access to justice.

14. Various pilots in Family for paperless working have commenced but are in their early stages. Most presently rely on paper bundles for hearings to be produced by the parties despite the documents being filed and stored electronically. No pilot has yet been able to produce an e-bundle and the equivalent software used in crime has not been extended to civil or family generally. Swansea has been chosen as a pilot area for private and public law children applications as they have had a local tri borough portal system funded by the local authorities for some time. Our members report this to be an excellent idea in theory but causes havoc when the system is down (which is frequently the case ). It also lacks sophistication. It is excellent to find a document that isn’t in the paper bundle However, it is not easy to navigate around and does not allow a user to flick from page to page yet alone document to document. Neither can you bookmark or make notes on it. Its use therefore cannot be contemplated for trial purposes without having a paper bundle. Whereas represented parties can produce paper bundles LIPs will find this more difficult and the burden will fall upon court staff to carry out this time-consuming task.

15. Members report similar experiences in Birmingham for the specialist Financial Remedy Court pilot where the Casefinder software tool in use is not fit for the purpose. It is really only an electronic storage system at present. We are very far from a true ebundle. Neither the public nor professions have direct access to the Casefinder system so this does not provide any aid to access to justice. It may have been of benefit as a cost and space saving exercise to HMCTS but it has not speeded up process nor hearings and cannot be the final solution.

18. More than half of the budget of £1.1bn has already been spent for limited tangible benefit. Court closures and huge reductions in staff numbers with more to come have led to a stark deterioration in the service with no immediate sign of the promised technology being delivered. We have serious concerns shared by the National Audit Office that the money will run out before the programme can be completed. This is compounded by the extension of the programme from 4 years to now 7 years with no extra funding.

19. If the service centres cannot cope and the back room 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.

20. If the IT does not work or suffers from outages of the type recently encountered, the same will apply. There is no immediately available alternative.

21. 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.

22. If the judges are not properly and comprehensively trained on a programmed mandatory and regular basis, as opposed to the somewhat ad hoc and optional training currently provided, the same will apply. Likewise, proper support must be in place within the Courts at which judges sit so that issues that arise can be quickly resolved.

23. HMCTS appointed Digital Support Officers (DSO’s) at every Court are not IT experts, but HMCTS staff who have undergone minimal training to be available 25% of their working day. They are often unable to resolve issues and have to telephone external help (or ask the Judge to do so). This leads to time consuming circular references to different providers. Meanwhile equipment cannot be used and work including hearings are disrupted. The use of DSOs is perceived as trying to provide a solution “on the cheap”, a false economy when the intended role of IT is so crucial.

24. If proposed new arrangements for listing and scheduling are not properly managed centrally to cope with local requirements, again chaos and prejudice to timely and efficient access to justice ensues.

26. Our experience is that large numbers of the public attend at Courts and far prefer to be able to see someone in person, as opposed to speaking to someone over the telephone. Many of these persons are vulnerable parties and benefit greatly from face to face support. The majority cannot afford to instruct solicitors or barristers to represent them, and therefore being able to access effective support is crucial if they are to be able to access justice and present their case before the Court.

37. The loss of HMCTS experienced staff is of considerable concern to us, as the Courts are increasingly reliant on agency staff who have little knowledge of how the Court system works. An added difficulty is that as Court staff are paid less than almost every other government department, they (and agency staff), often leave after a short period of time to take up appointment with another government department at a higher salary (often for undertaking an easier and less challenging job) All of this contributes to delays and mistakes being made by inexperienced court staff which inevitably does impact upon access to justice.

46. The use of video link for hearings poses difficulties that threaten access to justice. If using their own equipment there is a risk of the hearings being recorded by litigants in person and then uploaded onto You Tube or some other website or other persons being present at the hearing that the Judge is unaware of. Open justice requires that justice is seen to be done and is not happening behind closed doors. The majority of cases before the Courts are held in public. The main exception being children cases which are held in private, and where the concern is to protect the identity of the child. To preserve open justice, Judges continue to sit in open court even when dealing with video hearings (where members of the public can sit in Court and observe the proceedings).

 

 

District Judge Richard Lumb

Senior Vice President

Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges

Birmingham Civil and Family Justice Centre

 

See related matters by Gordon Exall:

CLOSING COURTS: MORE MADNESS AND MAYHEM FROM HMCTS: CLOSING MORE COURTS & NO PROPER RESEARCH (BUT THEY’VE PAID £30 MILLION TO “CONSULTANTS” SO EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE

and

“THE COURT REFORM PROGRAMME IS MARKED BY RECKLESSNESS AND LACK OF FORESIGHT”: VIEWS FROM THE FRONT LINE: MORE RESPONSES TO THE JUSTICE COMMITTEE .

Written by kerryunderwood

June 5, 2019 at 8:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Dear Mr. Underwood,

    Reference your above article, the harsh reality, I’m afraid, is that for the government, saving money at every turn has long been an end in itself. Where possible this will be dressed up as ‘reform’, meeting the challenges of the digital age and other suchlike nonsense. But possible or not, done it has to be, and if access to justice has to be sacrificed on this altar, its throat will be cut pronto. If indeed it hasn’t already been.

    Failings in the Heath-Robinson jury-rigged IT edifice the MoJ seeks to erect to replace it can quite easily, and doubtless will, be blamed on the refusal or slowness of lawyers to adapt.

    Yours,

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    C N O’Loughlin

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    Nick OLoughlin

    June 5, 2019 at 9:12 am

    • I agree, but things can change – there will be a regime change at some point.

      Kerry

      kerryunderwood

      June 5, 2019 at 3:15 pm


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