Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research at The Legal Education Foundation, has led an independent rapid review for the Civil Justice Council of changes to the civil justice system developed in response to Covid-19.
Measures put in place to tackle the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in significant changes to the civil justice system. In particular, there has been a rapid expansion in the use of remote hearings. In this context, the Civil Justice Council recognised that it was essential to understand how court users are being affected, to capture feedback, to suggest areas for improvement and to use this to shape future developments of the civil justice system. Crucial to this exercise was an evidence-based approach.
The Legal Education Foundation has a longstanding commitment to expanding the use of evidence in the design and review of the justice system. We have worked with the judiciary, HM Courts and Tribunal Services, Ministry of Justice, academics, practitioners, policy professionals, court administrators and NGOs, here and in other countries, to address the fundamental priority to collect and use data. The importance of this work was only strengthened by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the changes it has necessitated.
Being approached by the Civil Justice Council to carry out this review represented an additional and important opportunity to support efforts to understand better the impacts of changes, to identify areas where work is needed and to develop further the dialogue on robust structures for capturing and sharing data on the justice system.
The review was necessarily designed and carried out extremely rapidly. The sheer volume of responses was exceptional: 1,077 people responded to an online survey and 116 people attended a remote consultation meeting. Sixty-five submissions were sent to the consultation inbox. The response reflects a wide recognition of the importance of understanding the impact of Covid-19 on the justice system and of supporting the judiciary and court service in their efforts to ensure that hearings are able to take place.
The Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, the chair of the independent Civil Justice Council and Head of Civil Justice, welcomed the report, saying:
“The report is the result of an astonishing effort by all involved to produce such an informative report in a very short period of time, there were well over 1,000 responses to the review. The report provides a valuable snapshot of the effect of the pandemic on civil court users relatively soon after the pandemic began. I hope it will form a useful basis for further research and review in due course.”
Dr Byrom said:
“I am very grateful to everyone who contributed. We had to work extremely quickly at a time when everyone is under huge pressure. The report recommends immediate steps that can be taken to build on existing practice and ensure that remote hearings support access to justice. The Civil Justice Council’s commitment to use the report as basis for informing further research and review is very welcome. The report highlights systemic deficiencies in the information that is currently available on the operation of the civil justice system. The findings underscore the vital need to invest in robust systems for capturing data in order to review the operation of the civil justice system and build the evidence base for effective practice. Improving the data that is collected is vital to make the voices of litigants in person and lay users of the justice system heard.”
Matthew Smerdon, Chief Executive of The Legal Education Foundation said:
“We were very glad to be asked to carry out this review on behalf of the Civil Justice Council. We recognised the urgency and importance of this work for the communities and justice organisations that we support. Dr Byrom has done an incredible job of leading and completing this work at such speed, marshalling such a volume of evidence in to a report that will be of huge value to fostering the principles of justice and fairness.”
The full report is available here.
The Civil Justice Council press release announcing the launch of the report is here.