Modernising Criminal Justice: Reshaping the Future of HMCTS Reform and Resilience

HM Courts & Tribunals Service HMCTS Reform, Resilience and Recovery

As part of the Modernising Criminal Justice Conference, Chief Executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Kevin Sadler covers the UK’s Reform Programme, outlining how it’s combating an inflated Crown court caseload that’s resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. In closing his speech, Kevin also reflects on how this challenging period is shaping the future of reform and its objective to create resilient, long-term processes. 

HMCTS Reform, Recovery and Resilience

Kevin begins his speech with a reminder of the Reform Programme’s vision, outlining its key aims for the UK justice system and the people it serves. The Reform Programme is designed to provide: 

  • More and better ways to access justice
  • Quicker and simpler processes for professional and public court users alike
  • A workforce that is as effective as it can be 
  • More efficient services in the long-term 
  • Greater resilience in the most challenging times

To do this, much of the Reform Programme is focused on streamlining existing services and creating online alternatives where appropriate. In doing so, the programme will confront the challenge of a system that is admittedly antiquated, primarily paper-based and not as purpose-fit as it could be. 

Historically, the system has presented a one-size-fits-all model that is guilty of hindering the effective use of court and judicial resources. Many of its processes are unnecessarily complicated and not designed for the people that use them. As such, the initiatives mentioned throughout Kevin’s address are actively being shaped by feedback, first being piloted in select courts and regions, before being rolled out for wider use. 

"Achieving our reform vision is about more than improving systems. It will bring real and tangible benefits for individuals, for communities, for businesses and the wider economy." 

Kevin is confident the results of the Reform Programme will be transformative, extending to be much more than a system that merely functions — but one that thrives. 

In introducing innovation, encouraging virtual working for non-priority hearings and reserving space for the most vulnerable and crucial court cases, the programme will empower businesses to settle disputes at greater speed.

The programme will also attract more international legal business into the UK, reduce costs to the court and tribunals to the taxpayer, enable judicial and court time to be used more effectively and most importantly, create a system that is custom-built for its users. 

Online Services (OS) and COVID-19

Ideating and adopting OS has been critical during COVID-19 where social distancing has greatly impacted our ability to bring cases inside of court with every defendant present. 

With the availability of reliable OS, judges can decide which cases should be carried out virtually and which need to be carried out inside a court environment. Without this, the Crown court caseload would be even greater than its current status, still 11% over its pre-COVID baseline. 

"What can't be underestimated is the importance of the role that work, activity and skills already being developed as part of reform have played in withstanding the effects of COVID-19 in our courts and tribunals. Our digital services have enabled us to continue to provide key services to the public throughout the pandemic."

The Reform Programme’s proactive approach to digitalisation means the UK is among the first of similar jurisdictions in the world to safely return to jury trials in May last year, providing key services throughout several lockdowns. 

Furthermore, the results of online user satisfaction speak for themselves: 

  • 95% satisfied with Online Civil Money Claims OS
  • 90% satisfied with Single Justice Service OS
  • 88% satisfied with Probate OS
  • 83% satisfied with Social Security and Child Support OS
  • 93% satisfied with Divorce OS

With greater uptake of OS, the figures suggest digital alternatives could work for the court system even outside of crisis, allowing the entire system to become more efficient and hold greater capacity for active cases. 

"The missions we've put in place in our courts and tribunals have allowed us to prioritise our most urgent cases to keep people safe, protect the vulnerable, safeguard children and ensure that other critical decisions that affect the lives of so many have continued to be made throughout. Justice could not stop. And we did not stop. And we won't. Reform will continue to enable us to do a huge amount in the future." 

Common Platform (CP)

Another Reform Programme initiative is Common Platform (CP), a digital case management system designed for courts. This platform gives direct, secure access to key case information for the police, HMCTS staff, the judiciary, defence practitioners and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), while removing unnecessary administrative work. 

By using a platform like CP, courts will see successful handling of overnight remand hearings and first hearings of bail cases, as well as ensuring guilty anticipated plea (GAP) cases and anticipated not guilty plea (NGAP) cases run smoothly. 

CP is being piloted in the recently established Courts & Tribunals Service Centre in Birmingham, where staff have been trained to use the platform to respond to calls and emails. 

By December 2021, CP is expected to be in use in every criminal court in every region. More immediately, 50% of all criminal courts in England and Wales will use CP by the end of August. All forces should have access to CP by the end of the year. 

"The successful launch of the Common Platform (CP) is a major achievement for HMCTS and a key milestone in achieving the aims of reform."

The Results of Reform So Far

  • The OS made available by the Reform Programme has been quickly accepted with 90% of courts and tribunals hearings now using some form of remote technology

  • Using the reform’s cloud platform, over 250,000 hearings have been conducted so far

  • Further measures for vulnerable victims including the option to pre-record evidence in advance of trial is being piloted in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston upon Thames 

  • Nightingale courts set up on a temporary basis are providing around 60 additional courtrooms in England and Wales

  • Plexiglass screens have been installed in over 450 courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms, increasing the ability to list jury trials and other hearings and reducing the need for overspill courts

  • Over 290 courtrooms have been assessed as being capable and available to hold jury trials, with an additional 120 courtrooms approved for non-jury trial work 

  • 2 ‘Super Courtrooms’ are being developed in Manchester Crown Court and Loughborough Magistrates Court, due for completion at the end of Summer, to accommodate up to 12 defendants in custody

  • An additional 750 extra courtrooms are now video-enabled since the start of COVID-19

  • Outstanding cases in the magistrate's courts are now about 70,000 lower compared to their peak at the end of July 2020

For some time, the Recovery Programme’s efforts have been focused on recovery in criminal courts. With great success, as the figures above show, the Recovery Programme is now shifting its focus to increasing capacity and maximising existing capacity to make the UK’s court system as efficient and able as possible. 

“Recovery is not the end of our journey. We need to build on the lessons learnt during the pandemic and use them to inform the next phases of modernisation, building on the existing principles and plans and helping to build additional resilience to our operating model. COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of reform and modernisation of the court system as those services which have already been modernised proved much more resilient to the challenges we currently face.”