Evidence submitted to the Public Accounts Committee: The HMCTS Court Modernisation Programme

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1. Introduction
1.1 Resolution’s 6,500 members are family justice professionals, with solicitors comprising over 80% of all members. In response to the Public Accounts Committee’s Transforming Courts and Tribunals Inquiry, we invited members to provide their feedback on how their local courts are operating.

1.2 The survey was carried out online and ran for 6 days, from 30th May to 4 th June 2018 (4 working days). 168 Resolution members responded, and the results are summarised here. More detailed results are included in Appendix 1 (click view full results above).

2. Headline results

2.1 Since the Court Modernisation programme began, one in two (50%) Resolution members surveyed reported a closure of a court they have used historically. Of those who did not report court closures, many have noted that a local court is scheduled to close.

2.2 Court closures have led to increased travel time for professionals and clients, with increased difficulties faced by those using public transport. 88% of members who had seen their local court close reported increased travel times for them and their clients.

2.3 Speed of processing: compared with pre-modernisation, 4 in 5 members on average reported slower processing of applications, orders and other court documents:

  • 91% said finance consent orders were processed more slowly (75% ‘much slower’)
  • 91% said processing and sealing orders was slower (71% ‘much slower’)
  • 86% said divorce petitions were processed more slowly (66% ‘much slower’)
  • 84% said processing financial remedy applications or transferring finance matters to another court for hearing was slower, (58% ‘much slower’)
  • 61% said private children applications were processed more slowly (30% ‘much slower’)

2.4 Other interactions with the court: compared with pre-modernisation:

  • 79% say the clarity and relevance of communications from court are worse.
  • 80% say listing and availability of hearing dates/judges has worsened and half (50%) are experiencing more frequent vacations of hearings by the court.
  • 74% say that access to information (via telephone, email or in person) has worsened.
  • 70% say courts have gotten worse at dealing with urgent applications, correspondence and order preparation and sealing.
  • 58% noted a decline in legal knowledge amongst court administrative staff (24% say much worse), with 36% saying there had been no change.
  • Just over half (52%) have noted a decrease in quality of court documentation (41% said no change).

3. Summary of comments

3.1 Increased travel time. Members provided examples of how the travel time to their nearest court had increased for them and their clients:

  • “Reigate Court was a 15 minute car journey from the firm’s office. Most cases are now heard at Guildford which takes 40 minutes by car and can take 90 minutes if you do not leave before 7am.”
  • “Chippenham Family Court is closing this summer. There are only two courts now in the whole of Wiltshire, Swindon and Salisbury. Swindon is quite well served with public transport, but Salisbury is very difficult to access by public transport.”
  • “We used to have courts in Camborne, Penzance and Liskeard. Those clients in the west of the county now have to travel to Truro and those to north to Devon.”
  • “This is a rural area and the closure of a court results in considerable additional travel for clients to the next nearest court. Public transport is not always available or convenient for such journeys.”

3.2 Impact on clients. Members gave specific examples of how the current court facilities were having a detrimental impact on their clients:

Transferring cases without regard for vulnerable person. “My elderly client has both cancer and impaired mobility. She was initially at Preston – which is all on one level and has lifts. The night before the hearing I was notified that we were transferred to Reedley, which has no lift and the waiting room and court are upstairs. I rang to explain the difficulty and they said a downstairs room would be made available. However on the day it was not, and she had to climb up a steep windy staircase on her crutches. This happens all the time.”

Impact of lack of facilities for vulnerable people. “I requested a private meeting room for a client who was the victim of domestic violence. Court staff assured me on the telephone that adequate facilities would be provided. Upon arrival at court, no one had been notified and the client came face to face with her abuser.”

3.3 What some courts do well – and could be replicated elsewhere. Our members praised courts who took initiative to help, for example:

  • Responding to queries by email or phone, helping manage client expectations
  • Getting in touch to correct small mistakes or issues (ie, clarification or payment issue) rather than reject applications outright – saving time for all involved.
  • Having someone available and knowledgeable in court to answer queries and resolve matters on the day.

3.4 Specific comments and suggestions. Our members had some suggestions as to improvements which could help improve services provided by courts:

  • “A digital portal to track the progress of an application – this would cut court staff costs and time, and go a long way to reassuring clients.”
  • “The court should always have someone on hand with sufficient knowledge to be able to help resolve issues or provide information on the day. We want to be able to speak with someone at the court who can help.”
  • “We want to speak with someone on the phone who can help. Often calls are urgent, with solicitors calling because they’ve failed to get a response from email or by post. Call centre staff generally do not have the technical knowledge or the specific knowledge of the case to be able to assist.”
  • Many highlighted the importance of cafés, children’s facilities and suitable waiting areas in helping manage emotions and stress. One member summed it up:
  • “The café is a resource for clients to relax, discuss matters and remove themselves temporarily from the stress of the court process. This is not matched by a vending machine. Over the several decades of court work I have noticed that the presence of a café, staffed by a friendly “human” has a beneficial effect on the behaviour of those attending court. It calms, and neutralises stress.  When we lose the café, we don’t just lose the cup of tea. “