Meeting with HM Courts & Tribunals Service: 7 February
Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service is responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. They work with an independent judiciary to provide a fair, efficient and effective justice system. The organisation is led by the Chief Executive.
Meeting Date: 7 February 2017
Since taking up post in November 2016, the Chief Executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has visited many court centres across the country, covering every region and every jurisdiction. She is focused both on the reform of the courts, and on how they are running at the moment. She wants to put the needs of victims and witnesses as users of the court, as well as the needs of other court users and key stakeholders, at the heart of the reform programme.
Victims’ Commissioner’s Decency Pledge
The Victims’ Commissioner (VC) spoke about the Decency Pledge and the Chief Executive reaffirmed her commitment to support the Decency Pledge work. The Chief Executive told the VC about HMCTS’s National Victim Awareness Awards Conference planned for October 2017. The VC saw merit in HMCTS co-ordinating this event with her plans for a criminal justice system-wide national awareness week for victims and witnesses.
HMCTS officials will liaise with the VC’s office to look at how this work can be linked together to complement both strands. There may be a possibility for the VC to attend the HMCTS planned event – VC’s office will consider when dates are known.
The VC offered to help with training, as she has with other agencies. The Chief Executive was keen to involve the VC in a staff training video which would be delivered to victim and witness leads across court regions. The Chief Executive highlighted that HMCTS does conduct regular training and awareness sessions to those in contact with victims and witnesses, and this material could supplement that and assist in delivering consistent messages. The VC was happy to assist and mentioned other similar videos she has helped with for staff training, such as the National Probation Service.
The Chief Executive said that HMCTS have victim champions in every court region and were looking for this to be replicated for witnesses in family courts. The VC expressed that she was pleased to hear this given the concerns she has raised about recognising victims’ needs in the criminal courts, and the cross-over for some victims starting their journey in family courts.
The Chief Executive said that she wanted to see more attention given to measuring and improving victim, witness and other user satisfaction with the court process. Her particular concerns focused on the quality of interaction between HMCTS and victims, and how victims feel about that interaction. As a result, HMCTS will be doing more to capture perceptions and also to understand things like wasted effort in the system. HMCTS is working with partner agencies, including those representing victims and witnesses, to get this right. The Chief Executive went on to explain that online tools are currently being piloted by public users to ensure that they are as straightforward and easy to understand as is possible. HMCTS will use the information gained and the methodology used to pilot similar products for use in criminal courts – for example, to enable victims to track the cases that they are involved in.
The Chief Executive expressed that HMCTS’s handling of complaints had also improved, especially since the VC’s report in 2015. All court users now have a direct link to enable them to lodge complaints or indeed praise. In future, HMCTS will be professionalising the way they deliver customer service, with more customer centres. This means that when a victim or other customer has a complaint or a concern, there will always be a trained member of staff to speak at the end of the phone. The customer handling centre will also collect feedback from victims to assess how their call was handled.
The VC was pleased to hear about these initiatives, but raised whether HMCTS knew ‘what good looked like’. The Chief Executive said that the whole organisation was determined to do better, and was spending time thinking about and starting to show ‘what good looked like’, including in areas such as the way the physical buildings worked for people attending court. Work included:
- court of the future – with a focus on court infrastructure. The intention will be to produce a blueprint which will be used as existing courts are modernised, and new courts developed. The blueprint will include issues which have been raised as having an impact on victims and witnesses and will cover:
- what good looks like for victim and witness facilities at court
- awareness of shared facilities (waiting areas, restrooms, etc)
- better designed hearing rooms
- model witness suite – HMCTS was establishing model victim and witness rooms at various courts, and would be using these to improve standards across the estate. The VC’s office has been consulted and offered a number of considerations for HMCTS to reflect upon. The VC was very happy that this work was being undertaken given her experiences of visits to court rooms around the country. The VC suggested that the Royal Courts of Justice, where many appeal hearings are heard should not be forgotten in this work.
- front of house experience – HMCTS will be piloting new approaches to improve the front of house experience at Liverpool QE2 Law Courts, Aldershot Justice Centre and Leeds Magistrates’ Court over the next few months, taking learning from other service providers’ approaches, such as hospitals. The Chief Executive welcomed the possibility of the VC visiting the courts ‘showcasing’ these experiences, once established. VC’s office agreed to liaise with HMCTS officials on this going forward.
- digital improvements – the Chief Executive went on to discuss some of the many improvements that have been made within courtrooms, and in particular within criminal courts.
The Chief Executive explained how different ways of applying digital working has improved the quality of criminal hearings and has reduced delays and adjournments. The Chief Executive referenced the digital case system which stores and updates court files across partner agencies; reducing the risk of lost documentation; providing dates when documents have been loaded and can be accessed; and, allowing parties to provide their availability to enable mutually agreeable trial dates to be sourced.
The discussion extended to include the magistrates’ court products such as click share which allows the court to view evidence in its entirety at the same time rather than papers and grainy restrictive photographs being passed around a court room. Magistrates now have secure and immediate access to cases, reports and sentencing guidelines via tablet devices, within court presentation equipment available to them. The forthcoming digital mark up system will allow resulting to be completed in ‘real time’ and allow for outcomes to be shared with partner agencies such as probation, police and prisons.
The use of prison to court video-link equipment was also discussed, including the positive impact it was having on court hearings and the experience for victims and witnesses. The provision of remote video-links allowing these individuals to give their evidence in a more relaxed and less stressful environment was also discussed. HMCTS was planning to establish a national map of these facilities to share with partner agencies.