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UK’s Experience In Court Administration

In this episode of the DAKSH podcast, we spoke to Nick Goodwin, CEO of His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), UK. HMCTS is a unique institution, a partnership between the judiciary and the parliament. It is responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. It assists the judiciary in its administrative and management functions. Nick Goodwin has joined us today to talk about the roles and responsibilities of the HMCTS and its plans. This episode was recorded on 5 September 2022.

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Show Notes

Surya Prakash: Hello, and welcome to the DAKSH podcast. I’m your host Surya Prakash. I work with DAKSH, a Bangalore based nonprofit working on judicial reforms and access to justice. The judiciary in India, courts and tribunals are specialized public institutions with detailed procedures that are maintained and managed by legal experts. Like any other institution, they have technological, financial, HR and other management functions that need to be carried out. Who should be carrying out these management functions? How are other countries handling it? In this episode of the DAKSH podcast, we sat down with Mr. Nick Goodwin, CEO of HMCTS, UK. HMCTS, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is a unique institution in that it is a partnership between the judiciary and the Parliament. It assists the judiciary in its administrative and management functions. Mr. Nick Godwin has joined us today to talk about the roles and responsibilities of the HMCTS and its plans. I began by asking him about how the idea of HMCTS has evolved in the UK.

Nick: For a long time in England and Wales, there’s been an organization that helps support the administration of the courts. In our current form, HMCTS was established in 2011. And our core purpose is to support the judiciary to uphold the rule of law by providing supporting administration for fair, efficient and accessible courts and tribunals. So we run the courts, we want 336 venues, and 21 Back Office sites across England, Wales. And we have about 19,000 members of staff supporting about 20,000 judges, many of whom are lay magistrates or part time judges. So what we effectively do is make sure that when the courts weren’t in good order, we do all the as much of the administration to leave the judges to be able to do the core part of their job, which we’ve seen as judging individual cases. What we don’t do is devise new policies, new justice policies, that is a matter for the government. But we do however, when the new policies have been announced or turned into law, we do implement them in the courts to make sure that the courts work in line with what government or parliament has decided

Surya Prakash: Everything other than adjudication, if I may say so. Right? And interesting, you use the word back office, which is such a corporate term, a term that the Indians are fond of. Given this kind of work, how is the HMCTS structured? How do you find the resources? What are the kinds of skills and resources that you have within your organization, this high level of specialization that your organization has?

Nick: Yeah, the structure is that we work for an independent judiciary. But effectively, we have a governance structure. That means that we, we support a partnership agreement between the government whose Lord Chancellor or Secretary Of State Of Justice, and the senior judiciary, who in our context is the Lord Chief Justice or the senior president of tribunals. And so day to day, I run the administration of the courts with my team, but we report to both the government and the judiciary, and we are given direction by an independent board. So that’s how we make sure that we are correct constitutionally. We make sure that the government resources that are given to the court are spent in the right way. But we are spending those resources in a way that supports an independent judiciary. In terms of the skills we have, this sort of three baskets of skills. We have people that are very much frontline. So people answering the courts, dealing with individual cases, dealing with members of the public, people like ushers and court clerks who are there on the front line, we then have some support teams that work a little bit more behind the scenes to make sure that applications and papers are dealt with in the right way and put for the courts in an efficient manner. And then we have another layer, which is specialists in the headquarters to make sure that we’re continuing to improve the courts and run them well. So we have people doing the finances, for example, people looking after the people doing HR activities. And we also, of course, have people that are digital specialists that are constantly seeing to improve how the public interact with the courts, and make sure that the right information flows to the right people, at the right time,

Surya Prakash: Designed an oiled corporate enterprise, which has its vision, its mission, and its working towards helping other institutions function. You have briefly touched on the independence of how your structure allows for independence between the parliament and the legislature. The judiciary is independent, but it does have to depend on the executive in the parliament for budgetary support and other such things. Just to help our audience, can you give us an example with which it would be better explained independence, how is independence achieved with a day to day example?

Nick: There’s quite a few levels. It’s an absolute sacrosanct principle of UK law, the judiciary judge each individual case, completely independently from the government. So in a sense, there’s no room even for, for anyone in HMCTS, to do anything other than ensure the hearing happens in an effective way. So the judge can judge independently. After the levels, of course, it’s a bit more complicated. So our budget is set by the Ministry of Justice. But that is done in a way whereby we effectively set out to the Ministry of Justice, what we think it would cost to run an efficient and effective justice system. And we have a mechanism whereby if the budget we get isn’t thought appropriate, I can effectively ask the judiciary to raise the issue, which they may do informally, or in awful cases, it’s never happened in England and Wales, they raise the issue of Parliament, which would be quite a big thing. So we try to avoid that, of course. And then, of course, there are other issues where the government is in the driving seat, they can set policies that apply to the courts. So for example, it might decide that we should provide a way of interviewing, for example, vulnerable witnesses, which allows them to give evidence in a better way, that will be a government policy, and it will be passed into law. We would then work in the courts to make sure that that is effective. And in doing so we would of course, be talking to the judiciary to make sure that we are operating the government’s policy intention in a way that allows for the smooth running of justice. So there’s a number of levels. But the principle of judicial independence is something that we are very, very careful to ensure we get it right at all times.

Surya Prakash: That just brings to the forefront the expertise and the skill that is required in the administration of justice, and the importance of administration of justice in delivering justice. One way to look at it would be irrespective of the institutional structure adopted by the state, the end users, the litigants, the citizens care about the justice that has been delivered, or whether it has not been delivered. So how has HMCTS helped make a difference to the experience of the litigants and citizens with the justice system? What is your perspective on how HMCTS has helped?

Nick: Yes, you’re quite right. At the end of the day, the public wants justice to be delivered and delivered in a timely way. So we spend a lot of time thinking within HMCTS and talking to our partners such as prosecutors, police, and so forth about how we can improve the justice system, for example, practitioners and lawyers and so forth. And what we’re always seeking to do is improve the efficient and effective nature of the justice system. So for example, over the last few years, we’ve had a really big reform program that is very much focused on getting cases to the courts in a timely manner. And that has taken a number of forms. So for example, we have a lot more cases digitally on paper than we ever have before. And in setting up our services to interact with the public, we’re always trying to ensure that they are very accessible. So to give an example, one of the things we simply done is move away from people submitting certain applications on paper. But they will now do so online. And that means that it’s easier for many people to do it that way. But we can also design a system that reduces errors. And that means that, for example, in divorce, if someone wanted to divorce before, in around 40% of cases, because it was a complicated thing to do, they would make an error. And we’d have to say, sorry, start again. By redesigning a system to be more efficient, effective and modern. We’ve reduced that error rate now to around 2%. So that is a lot of people now, effectively getting the justice they need much more quickly. And we have numerous examples of that across the system. Over the last few years, we’ve invested nearly 1.3 billion pounds on a raft of reforms, which effectively are all about increasing access to justice, making sure that really heavy cases are heard face to face by those senior judges. But low level cases are dealt with in a proportionate manner.

Surya Prakash: Yeah, it is a comprehensive bouquet of an array of tools that you have to deploy for a systemic reform at this scale. So it’s not just one or two things, right. So you talked about a reform program that is going on for some time, and some efforts that have happened in the recent past into this reform program. And I also understand that it is about to reach its end. What was the purpose of it? And what has it done so far? Can you please share some more detail on that?

Nick: Well, as I said, it was a program we started in 2016. It was a really, really big and ambitious program. And we saw sort of three key mysteries in the system when we embarked on a program. One was that it was overly paper based and old fashioned if you like. The second was we tended to apply the same processes to all cases. So complicated, big cases had the same processes, small, low value cases. And thirdly, it was too complicated. So the reform program was based on the idea that we get cases out of court that don’t need to be there. So some very low level offenses, people not paying for a television license, for example, will now deal with on paper, largely, and with some of the offenses, there’ll be dealt with digitally greater virtual working. So we’re now in a position where I think over 70% of our courts can hold virtual hearings rather than physical hearings. People find that more accessible in certain sorts of cases, for example, many disabled people further as a means of talking about their case. And that, therefore, is a good thing. And then as I said, we’ve simplified the design of many of our services. So that’s what the former agenda has been about. It applies to every single jurisdiction in the courts of England and Wales. So crime, civil family, and all are tribunals to, and it’s a major undertaking, but one that really is bearing fruit already. I think it’s safe to say, because we embarked on this road some time ago, we were able to deal with the challenges of the pandemic much better. We were set up to move to virtual hearings very quickly.

Surya Prakash: That’s, I think, one of the few courts that were able to quickly adapt, or the courts in the UK from what we have seen, so happy to see that the HMCTS reform program was a precursor and enabled that, which is now the new normal. You mentioned complications, you mentioned about too much paper. And in all of these, the litigants and the citizens use the services of professionals and the justice system, while it has a citizen centric, litigant centric focus, it relies heavily on the practitioners, whether they be lawyers or the investigation officers or everybody, the government departments? So how have you approached engaging with them as stakeholders in this reform process? Because in the Indian context, there has been a lot of resistance to change from these quarters?

Nick: Well, yes, we spend as much time as we possibly can talking to all our stakeholders. So yes, practitioners and everyone else involved in the justice system. And what we try to do is involve them as early as possible in the development of any product. So what we will do is we will put a proposition out there. For the proposition itself was one that was put forward by the Lord Chief Justice jointly with the Secretary of State for justice at the time, we had a consultation, a conversation about that. But then as we developed individual products, we’ve been using experts from practitioner groups to help us develop and refine those products so that they work for everyone. And that’s sometimes quite a full process when you’re talking about a particular issue. But generally speaking, we try and operate in an open way and keep our doors open and respond to fair criticism. In a sense, HMCTS tries to be a kind of honest broker in the justice system. So we are, of course, pushing access to justice. But yes, we are very receptive to the needs or, and we develop services that we think genuinely help, for example, practitioners. So we have a My HMCTS service that allows practitioners to log on and track their cases and deal with this in a very digital way. And likewise, we focus a great deal to make sure that the judiciary and other key players can access and do their work in a way that is seamless. And all that requires feedback all the time.

Surya Prakash: Extensive consultation, I don’t think there’s any other shortcut to reform anywhere in any field. The HMCTS Model clearly is unique. The separation of administration from adjudication, a structure which allows for specialization and functional domain expertise. Have you heard of any other country which has tried this model?

Nick: Yeah. So I mean, I think around the world, a lot of countries are doing some elements of what we’ve been doing in HMCTS. I mean, there are very good examples in some Commonwealth jurisdictions. Canada, for example, has been doing some quite interesting stuff. I think, what’s different about what we’ve been doing, as well as the biggest, we’ve bitten off just about everything, and tried to chew on it. So you know, we have a big program and a lot of money. And it’s been running for seven years. So the scale and totality of what we’ve been trying to do will make it unusual. But you know, we have seen across the globe, certainly many more justice systems, trying to digitize and move to virtual hearings. So not just us, but I think we’re probably the bravest, shall we say?

Surya Prakash: Right? So what are you currently working on? What are your current priorities, challenges and opportunities? Pandemic has just about receded, you were able to adapt to the situation, then? What are you seeing your current priorities and challenges to be?

Nick: So I think the current priorities are twofold really. One is that the pandemic disrupts justice in quite a significant way. So we are trying to recover from that. And we’re doing that both through a reform agenda that I’ve spoken about. But also, you know, we’ve got a big challenge in getting physical cases through the courts as well. So we are eating into the backlog or have  been. But that’s required, of course, to get more caught up and running than ever before, to get more judges in place than ever before. So that’s a big part of the business that won’t go away, however modern we are, or require a lot of attention. And then I think the other thing is, we have not that much longer left to deliver our reform agenda. So we’ve got some lots of very live projects going at the moment. And I think what we’re really focusing on is delivering those projects, but also making sure that we’re embedding them, that people understand the new processes and using them the right way, because what you design and how it works in reality, often needs a bit of adjustment. So we’re going through that process.

Surya Prakash: Right, the uptake of solutions, the institutionalizing of the reform, I think. So would that continue after your reform program has been delivered? How do you see yourself, this HMCTS’s agenda over the next five, six years or so.

Nick: So I think what we will have done through the reform program is put really good foundations in place, and address some really critical areas. But undoubtedly, the process of reform needs to continue. So there are areas that we haven’t had the bandwidth tackle yet that we will need to tackle to bring in line with some of the most modernized areas. So that will continue. And then I think there’s also we’re constantly looking at the future. So what are the opportunities of new technology? Where may they take us? And I think in doing all of that we stick to the principles that I set out, which is, this is about access, just as we law to get that right. We have to work out how users, be they people, come into the courts or professionals, how do they interact with our services. If we can make it simple, straightforward for them, we can effectively make a more efficient process for us to run as well. So that’s how we look at the future. There’s plenty more to go up. We won’t be sitting on our laurels.

Surya Prakash: It’s a never ending job. large, complex social system reforms are always ongoing. So happy to hear the progress you’ve made at HMCTS. And thank you once again for sharing the inside story on how HMCTS is working in this area. Looking forward to engaging more on this topic with HMCTS and you.

Nick: My absolute pleasure and we’re always very keen to learn from others so very useful to keep the conversation going as between ourselves in England or Wales and our peers in India. Thank you.

Surya Prakash: That was my conversation with Nick Goodwin, CEO of the HMCTS and you’ve been listening to the DAKSH podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, do consider supporting us with a donation. The link is in the show notes below. Creating this podcast takes effort, and your support will help us sustain a space for these quality conversations. To find out more about us and our work, visit our website dakshindia.org. That’s D-A-K-S-H india.org. Don’t forget to follow us and subscribe to us wherever you listen to our podcasts so that you don’t miss a single episode. We would love to hear from you. So do share your feedback, either by dropping us a review or rating the podcast where podcast apps allow you to, Talk about it on social media. We’re using the hashtag dakshpodcast. It really helps get the word out there. Most of all, if you found some useful information that might help a friend or family member share the episode with them. A special thank you to our production team at ‘Maed in India’, Our production head Niketna K, edited, mixed and mastered by Lakshman Parshuram and project supervision by Sean Phantom.


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