Court service must move from 'physical paradigm', chief executive says
The high flier charged with bringing England and Wales’ creaking court system into the 21st century at a time of swingeing budget cuts has said courts must become “digital by design”.
In her first public speech since taking up her role as heat of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in January, Natalie Ceeney said that the Ministry of Justice agency puts too much of its resources into bricks and mortar. While the service spends one-third of its budget on running and maintaining our buildings, over a third of courts sit for less than 50% of the time available to them.
"For many of our services, that physical paradigm no longer feels like the right answer, not just because it’s expensive, but because it is no longer the right answer for good justice," she told a conference in London.
More than 90 court buildings in England and Wales are being considered for closure in a consultation which has angered lawyers as well as trade unions. The Labour Party’s justice spokesman Andrew Slaughter has condemned “mass culls”, and Conservative MPs have also raised concerns.
Ceeney promised that proceeds from the sale of underused court buildings will be invested in technology to move away from the “physical paradigm”, with virtual hearings replacing many proceedings.
HMCTS is finalising the business case for a £375m investment in new infrastructure over five years. In the meantime, she said the equipping of magistrates' courts with digital technology would be complete by Christmas.
“We clearly need the full majesty of our criminal courts for our most complex and our most horrific criminal trials,” Ceeney said. “But, as we are showing through the new streamlined summary justice procedures, they feel disproportionate and unnecessary for traffic offences."
She added: "Today we hold physical tribunal hearings for immigration appeals with full legal representation, despite the appellants being physically out of the country. And we transport prisoners across the country, at huge cost, for a five minute bail hearing in front of a judge.”
She contrasted the courts service's use of digital technology with that of the private sector. “Britain has the highest rate of online service usage in the world – over one-quarter of all non-food goods are now purchased online and 85% of Britons are online.
"We need to enable a police officer to give evidence by video, taking 10 minutes of time off their working day, rather than the current half day. We need to stop running prison vans to transport prisoners to and from prisons for a 10-minute plea hearing which can be done online.”
On the current “green screen” state of courtroom technology, she said: “We have thousands of extremely hard working and dedicated staff whose jobs are to handle and process mounds of paper – whether to type in handwritten forms as a result of us not having a decent online interface or manually check benefits entitlement because we don’t (yet) have the interconnectivity with DWP’s database.”