Next: in part 2 of the exciting new drama Court Reform Crime Programme? Chinny Reckon!, we find out what plans the hapless HMCTS/MOJ blue sky thinkers have for tipping a cool £270 million down the justice system drain!
I’m hoping you’ve boiled the kettle again, as we’re about to return to the Public Accounts Committee session on the current Court Reform programme. Coming in the same week in which the House of Lords was debating the latest Courts & Tribunals (Functions of Staff) Bill – from which it appears the Great Plan is to hand over large swathes of judicial functions to MOJ salaried civil servants – you might think this is a topic which might bear some scrutiny.
However, discussions on these finer points of the separation of powers, and how the separation of powers is gradually being detached from the rule of law, are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, the Men (and Woman) from the Ministry are here to tell us all how marvellous the new Court Digital Landscape is going to be, after they’ve finished closing all those Actual Courts and getting rid of all those Actual People.
I’m guessing you want to know who they are, so here goes.
There’s a bloke called Richard Goodman, who rejoices in the title of Change Director & Reform Programme Director, apparently. (Does that mean he gets paid two salaries or something?) There is something of the manner of Mr La-Di-Dah Gunner Graham out of It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum about him, but without the glasses.
Then there’s Susan Acland-Hood, who is the CEO of HMCTS. She is well known to those of us lawyers who live on Twitter, chiefly for her admirable willingness to engage in dialogue with disgruntled members of the profession and court users (none of her predecessors have bothered). If there’s a toilet out of order in Bumfluff Magistrates’ Court, or a list officer out of order in any Crown Court you could care to mention, Susan will take the issues ‘on board’ in her cheery way.
And finally it’s Richard Heaton – Citizen Camembert, the Big Cheese, the Grand Fromage, the Permanent Secretary of the MOJ.
So what’s occurring on Planet Court Reform? Well, apparently there’s a New Bill all about courts and prisons going through the House of Lords at the moment (we know!), Heaton tells committee chair Meg Hillier (Labour, Hackney South & Shoreditch) when she asks, with obvious trepidation, about the progress, timetable and pace of the Reform Programme. When asked whether the Bill has had all the controversial bits taken out in an attempt to ease its passage, like some sort of judicial suppository, Heaton is already starting to appear nervous. It looks as if he can barely remember that it’s now apparently called the Courts & Tribunals (Judiciary & Functions of Staff) Bill.
Hillier is soon onto the vexed issue of the unredacted judicial survey about the effects of unrepresented defendants, revealed by the recent Buzzfeed story (see link here) – which busted the MOJ for apparently trying to hide a potentially damaging report containing some trenchant comments by judges about the problems caused by the increasing number of those appearing in court without a lawyer. Fortunately, according to Heaton this is not a “large volume issue” as there aren’t that many of them (CHINNY RECKON🤔!). Well, perhaps not at the moment, but once you’ve put all those lawyers out of business, you might have to re-visit that proposition, eh?
Acland-Hood is soon stepping in when talk turns to the online court ‘reforms’. I feel my eyes glazing over at the thought of increased numbers of citizens being able to collect their criminal records online, seemingly without any ‘advice stage’ input from, say, the duty solicitor or indeed anyone except perhaps Professor Google. On a question about access to justice issues as a result of the reforms, from Shabana Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham Ladywood), Acland-Hood earnestly propounds the proposition that (in the absence of express legislation on the topic), they will have to achieve some aims “sub-optimally”. And apparently, the translation of the “character of the sub-optimalness” means saving slightly less money than they were hoping. And you thought it was about access to justice? (CHINNY RECKON🤔!)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mahmood then lobs the bombshell: the programme is a third of the way in, and already a third of the way behind where it’s supposed to be! Why are we in this position?
There follows an elongated and earnest exposition about “milestones” and “partial measures” and the revelation that one of the milestones was meant to be about recruiting a certain number of staff to “help with our performance measures”. Eh? When you haven’t even got enough staff to answer the phone at any of the courts that are still open, and are only just opening emails from 2017?
Apparently one milestone might be bigger than another milestone, and the position of the milestones might have already shifted, and the milestones have gone from a four-year movement to a six-year movement (or something) – are you with me so far? Does this explain, asks Mahmood, why you’re only 62% of the way you should have been in order to hit your targets for stage 1 of the project, let alone getting any further? How can the HMCTS give the Committee any confidence that at the end of the six-year programme, 100% of this programme is actually going to be delivered? (You can almost feel the Committee’s collective CHINNY RECKON🤔.)
Acland-Hood answers this in the manner of the girls’ school hockey captain telling the PE teacher why the Upper Sixth team were soundly thrashed in a grudge match with the local comprehensive. This doesn’t wash with Mahmood, who admits that nothing she’s hearing is reducing her concerns about the scheme’s delivery. Are there any parts of the programme about which Acland-Hood has concerns?
Surprise surprise, first up is the Common Platform! This apparently “has been running slower than we wanted for some time”. However, although this “continues to be a challenging programme” (obviously), “we need to increase our pace further”. What?! You want more “velocity” on the cock-ups? The look on Mahmood’s face says it better than I could: check her facial expression at 15:31:35 on the video (🤔).
A short time later there’s the first mention of the much derided ‘flexible operating hours’ scheme, on which HMCTS seem to have gone quiet of late. Probably because the reaction from the barristers, solicitors and court staff who would have to work the scheme was one of almost universal hostility. But that soon gets swept aside, as we’re back to the Common Platform again.
Only apparently, it’s not called Common Platform any more! It’s now the Crime Programme. Call a turd by another name, it’s still a turd. And fear not, there’s “enormous enthusiasm across Government for really agile delivery”. It’s probably not just me who thinks that the current Government’s idea of “really agile delivery” is basically not to provide any delivery at all, to starve out the delivery and then outsource the delivery to private equity, then have to step in and pay double when the private equity delivery goes tits up. Oh, and agility has milestones as well. God help us!
You will obviously also be pleased to hear, though, that changes have been made to the “strategic pipeline” and we’ve now got “rainbow teams” or something. Mahmood is on this. How has this affected the costs? And where are the police and the CPS in all of this, bearing in mind they’re the main parties who have to make this work? You just catch Heaton’s nervous glance at the edge of the shot.
When Acland-Hood laughably tries to suggest that all is rosy between the main delivery partners and, e.g., the defence community (where are they?), Mahmood moves on to the relevant National Audit Office report, which paints quite a different picture. Do the police and CPS have the capacity to match the delivery expectations, Mahmood asks, pointedly suggesting that this only requires a short answer…
The answer is apparently yes, though I’m wondering if anyone has told the CPS (20% plus staff cuts since 2010) or the police (also 20% manpower cuts since 2010).
Goodman then cuts in with some actual numbers about how many cases have gone through the Common Platform end to end: a few dozen so far! Heroic! I’m afraid after this point, we enter the realms of indicators, interventions and other business gobbledygook. What about Actual Access to Justice for Actual People in all this?
Fortunately, Mahmood is back in with some specific questions about court closures, after the earlier evidence. What do we learn? Well, in a nutshell:
(i) there is no statistical basis for suggesting that court closures have caused an increase in people failing to attend for hearings because they can’t get to court (CHINNY RECKON🤔!);
(ii) the number of people being charged by postal requisition rather than at the police station probably has caused a spike in this (you don’t say…);
(iii) changes on this scale to a justice system have never been attempted anywhere else in the world (CHINNY WOBBLE 😱 – this is terrifying);
(iv) the project currently has an ‘amber’ risk warning attached to it and, says Chris Evans (Labour, Islwyn) is also facing a funding shortfall of £61million according to the NAO, which HMCTS are expecting the Treasury to fill with the ‘agreed under-spends’ from previous years (CHINNY RECKON 🤔 – the Treasury won’t even pay to keep the toilets and lifts in our court buildings running!) or in the next spending round;
(v) in answer to the last, Heaton is “confident we will get the funding if we’re doing well” (CHINNY RECKON! 🤔) – but hold on, haven’t we just spent the last hour hearing about how NOT VERY WELL this project is doing?
When Hillier asks whether Heaton can point her to one small corner of the MOJ which is “steady running” and not currently undergoing massive changes, Heaton, mouth flapping open, can’t think of one. Evans also expresses the concern that if one part of this monolith goes wrong, this could impact the whole department, but don’t worry – Heaton confidently suggests that it won’t (CHINNY RECKON! 🤔).
Evans is also sceptical about the plainly “ambitious” expectation that 70% of HMCTS users will be going online, and cocks an eyebrow at the unsatisfactory response to his proposition that users of the justice system can’t be compared to general Government department online users (e.g., HMRC), as people generally don’t engage with the justice system voluntarily or more than once or twice. Have the HMCTS squad even thought about that? (CHINNY RECKON 🤔)
Meanwhile, Acland-Hood has no real answer to the question from Gillian Keegan (Conservative, Chichester) about what is an unreasonable travel time to court for a hearing, except to suggest that people can appear on video link (CHINNY RECKON 🤔 that one, based on bitter experience of court tech!).
The Senior Judiciary tell us we must all love the Digital Revolution…
One of the most important points is made towards the end of the session by Anne-Marie Morris (Conservative, Newton Abbot). There’s been a lot of talk about processes and outcomes and people appearing on videos from all over and such, she says, but very little about people. Where do Actual People fit in? “There is a real concern that this system will not actually give us something which is fair. Can you tell me how you believe you’re going to measure how we get real justice out of this?”
Heaton cuts across Acland-Hood here, as he jumps in to point out that one of the main architects of this system has been the senior judiciary. CHINNY RECKON?! 🤔Seeing how some of them dealt with the recent barristers’ industrial action, that doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence. Acland-Hood tries to placate Morris with talk of an academic study from the University of Western Australia which apparently suggests that cases where one or more parties appear on video link don’t adversely affect considerations of witness credibility, for example, but it’s all rather nebulous and boils down to “well, we have quite a few individuals appearing on video link already”. Most of them not by choice of either or both parties, I’ll wager, more likely because the court unilaterally decided it.
And how, queries Morris, are individuals going get hold of legal advice if they’re going to be expected to plead online? Apparently, it’s all about Susan’s Signposting, though the practicalities of this again don’t seem to be forthcoming. Goodman starts banging on about an experiment they’re running in Medway (anyone come across this?), where apparently at the police station stage there is going to be access to digital online legal aid applications and other advice pamphlets online.
What, in the police station?
Slight pause. “But how are they going to access this?” demands Hillier. “Are they still going to have access to their phones there?”
The wide-eyed stare of Goodman suggests that HMCTS’s Three Musketeers hadn’t thought of that one. Give me strength.
“But there’s work happening on video justice in Medway!” he chirps. FFS.
What’s going to happen if the digital system breaks down, Morris wonders? Apparently that’s not going to be a problem for Big Suze’s department as we already do a great deal online. Yes, and we already have a great many system failings/dropouts/glitches now, so one can only guess how many more of those we’ll have to endure with a system wide rollout.
And in case you were worried about how this is going to roll out across the whole criminal justice system from top to bottom, well, don’t be. Because happily the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle has been thoroughly consulted on a few years ago on the “least serious” criminal offences. After all, what’s good for offences of fishing with an unlicensed rod is going to be good enough for dealing with a GBH, isn’t it? Morris looks thoroughly sceptical as Acland-Hood tries to persuade her of stuff like how marvellous it will be for people to be pleading guilty online willy-nilly.
“Just tell me,” she spits, “what the three of you think the top three risks are.” No surprise that the Crime Programme appears to come out as the top risk overall. We could have told them that without them having to spend two hours on Parliament TV.
If you ask me (and a few people have), the top risk appears to have been very neatly encapsulated in last week’s Law Gazette (see link here), where it is revealed that the NAO has identified a massive £171million spending gap in HMCTS’s plans, at a time when the Treasury have apparently been told that there is no extra money for any departments other than the Health Department, who funnily enough have just been promised £25billion!
Somehow, the numbers don’t add up, no matter how much HMCTS’s triumvirate try to persuade us otherwise. I give this whole thing a big CHINNY RECKON 🤔. Which is about the most polite gesture I can proffer.
Main pic by Wildy