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‘Comprehensive strategy’ needed to replace flawed courts reform

By Michael Cross >>

(15 June 2022)

Fundamental reform of the civil and criminal courts in England and Wales could create a world-leading system by 2030 – but only if the reasons for the failures in the current reform programme are tackled. That is the message of a study published today by a cross-party thinktank the Social Market Foundation into what it calls a ‘justice gap’. 

The study, ‘Future-proofing justice’, argues that the poor performance of the civil and criminal courts poses a threat to the rule of law in the UK. It calls for a ‘fresh, long-term strategic approach to reform’. However this must be based on solid data, which is currently lacking. 

‘The current modernisation effort is – at best – likely to fall short of the kind of transformation needed to bring about a significant improvement in the performance of the civil and criminal courts,’ the report states. This is partly because of the ‘underdeveloped state of civil and criminal justice policy research’, which has meant reforms are not always based on evidence. Further attempts at reform will fall short too, if this “knowledge gap” is not filled with an extensive and robust evidence base about what works and what does not.’ This should be addressed by the creration of a ‘justice research council’ by mid 2023. 

A new reform programme should begin with an independent evaluation of the current programme, which is due to wind down next year. Its findings should inform the development of a ‘comprehensive new long-term court reform strategy, led from the top of government, to make the English and Welsh courts ‘the best in the world by 2030’.

The report does not consider the sums of money needed. But it identifies several likely challenges to successful reform. Reform will need clear leadership, rather than the current overlap between ministers, the judiciary and HMCTS managers. 

Meanwhile the myriad of component parts, interests and stakeholders complicates change. ‘Ultimately the most successful reforms will involve ways that better reduce the complexities, contradictions and antagonisms, and align the interests of all the entities, groups and individuals involved to the greater good of more effective and efficient court systems.’ 

While the adoption of new technology is essential, the report finds concern that the current programme had become too narrowly focused on technology as the ‘silver bullet’.  

Among the report’s recommendations are: 

  • The creation of a longer term and more coherent and strategic approach to court reform, ‘at the highest policymaking levels’.
  • The establishment of a ‘justice research council’ to fill the current deficit in knowledge about the justice landscape. 
  • Implementation by next year of the Briggs and Leveson recommendations for reform of the civil and criminal courts. 

The editorially independent report was sponsored by London firm Mishcon de Reya. Nick West, Mishcon partner and chief strategy officer, said: ‘While previous attempts at modernising the legal system have at times made incremental changes, it is clear that a significant shift is needed now. The best way to achieve this is to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders who are committed to effective and long lasting reform to secure the future of English law.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)