As we approach the first anniversary of the initial UK lockdown, the ongoing pandemic continues to severely impact every element of society – including significant ramifications across the legal and justice sectors.
During November’s Modernising Criminal Justice 2020, Gemma Hewison, Strategy & Change Director for HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), provided a record number of delegates with an update on “court reform and the challenge of COVID-19 on the criminal courts”.
A billion-pound reform programme
Ms Hewison began her keynote by highlighting the current reform programme, stating that the government is investing £1bn in a bid to open up new ways to access justice, with a greater focus on simplicity and convenience. This also includes improving processes and digital access, whilst removing procedures from the courtroom if they are not required to be there. She explained the objective is to have a gradually smaller, more centralised workforce equipped with new skills and technology to enhance the quality, consistency and efficiency of the service the courts provide.
“At the beginning of 2020, we were making great progress towards the delivery of reform,” said Ms Hewison, highlighting initiatives such as the first iteration of the Common Platform for summary offences being heard by a single justice (handling 130,000 TfL, TVL and DVLA cases), the Make A Plea Online service (used by 250,000 people in 2019 alone), a system for jurors to reply to a summons online, an online rota system for magistrates’ courts, plus the introduction of Digital Mark Up in magistrates’ courts to allow for in-court resulting of cases. However, “when the pandemic struck, HMCTS’ focus shifted to the response and recovery of our services. The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges on the courts service and required rapid changes to ensure the essential worked continued whilst keeping staff safe,” she said.
The emergency response
Ms Hewison said the UK was one of the only justice systems across the world to continue operating during the height of the crisis. “At the end of March 2020, 157 priority court and tribunal buildings were selected to be kept open for essential face to face hearings. This enabled us to consolidate staff and support and keep justice moving. The Crown Court was particularly affected by the pandemic due to the challenges of conducting jury trials while maintaining social distancing.”
“Priority was given by the judiciary to hearings related to custody, detention and bail, plus urgent applications for matters such as terrorism and domestic violence. We worked really closely with our criminal justice partners from the beginning, and the Judiciary, to restart jury trials in early May, and we have continued to increase the number of trials that have been taking place ever since. Also, we rapidly expanded audio and video technology, enabling judges to conduct remote hearings to a far greater degree.”
Ms Hewison shared other initiatives, which in November last year included:
- Plexiglass installed in 203 courtrooms and 107 deliberation rooms
- All open courts having the capability to conduct video hearings
- 16 Nightingale Courts open, providing 29 extra court rooms
- 1,600 additional staff recruited to support for video hearings
Ms Hewison also highlighted how the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) Is now being used in prisons and police stations, as well as 151 magistrates’ courts and 74 Crown Courts across England and Wales (correct as of November 2020). “We are continuously improving by increasing capacity and refining processes, guidance and training for thousands of users across the criminal justice system. We've heard over 65,000 hearings and usage is continuing to rise with over 20,000 hours spent in calls per week,” she said.
Progress towards recovery
Those initiatives have certainly had a positive effect. At the time of speaking, Ms Hewison said the outstanding caseload of the magistrates’ courts is reducing, which has been aided by additional magistrates’ courts sitting on Saturdays. In terms of Crown Courts, “tangible progress to enable recovery” has been made, whilst stating that (as of mid-November) 200 jury trials were being listed per week.
The reform continues with the Common Platform
As part of the continuing reform, Ms Hewison said, “the Common Platform is the underpinning digital infrastructure for our reforms in criminal justice. It will deliver a single online system, designed to act as a “central hub”, enabling the police, the CPS, HMCTS, and legal professionals to access and share all of the information about a case.
“It will enable all participants in the criminal justice system to work with the same information, reducing duplication of effort, and it will introduce more consistent working practises across HMCTS. Critically, it will provide clearer management information throughout the system,” she stated.
Ms Hewison explained to delegates that the Common Platform has already been rolled out in Derbyshire (September 2020), and will be rolled out across several other early adopter courts shortly, before a wider introduction.
Finally, Ms Hewison explained that HMCTS needs to “build on the lessons learnt and use them to inform the next phases of modernisation”. She added that COVID-19 has “reinforced the importance of reform and the modernisation of the court system”, whilst stating that “we need to continue to ensure that technology recently introduced or expanded works effectively for all participants in court proceedings”.
“Above all we want to make best use of the incredible work done to keep the courts operating to deliver access to justice in the public interest,” she concluded.
Gemma Hewison was speaking at Modernising Criminal Justice 2020 last November. You can watch the full presentation here and for further information on recovery measures in the criminal courts, visit HMCTS’ GOV.UK pages. For more information about the upcoming 2021 conference, to be held virtually on 23rd June, click here.
Jessica Kimbell, GovNet