The Legal Education Foundation calls on the Government to now fully fund and embed a comprehensive data strategy at the heart of HMCTS’ £1bn Reform Programme to ensure justice for all
One year ago, on 2 October 2019, The Legal Education Foundation (TLEF) published ‘Digital Justice: HMCTS data strategy and delivering access to justice’ following a three month secondment by its Research Director, Dr Natalie Byrom, into HMCTS as an expert adviser on open data. The Report set out a blueprint of 29 recommendations for evaluating the impact of the government’s online courts programme, and for ensuring the needs of all court users are understood and fully met in the move to digital justice. If the report is adopted in full, the UK could become a world leader in delivering digital justice for all.
Twelve months later, HMCTS has finally responded, accepting the overwhelming majority of the 29 recommendations, at least in principle. Dr Natalie Byrom said:
“Today is a pivotal moment for the government to fully embrace – and fully fund - a data strategy that will deliver digital justice for all. Over a year on from delivering my report to HMCTS, I welcome its acceptance of my recommendations. I urge the government to now put words into action. There is no better moment than now to step up the implementation of those recommendations. Otherwise, we will waste the opportunity to make the UK a world leader in delivering digital justice for all.”
Dr Byrom identified that HMCTS’ £1bn Reform Programme, arguably the most ambitious in the world, provided the catalyst to transform the way data on the operation of the justice system is collected. She clearly identified that its very success was dependent on building in the necessary digital infrastructure at the ‘front end’, as the programme was being rolled-out, rather than wastefully retro-fitting it as an after-thought. Dr Byrom highlighted a “vanishing window” to improve the quality of vital data collection, because the technology that is currently being devised and coded under the HMCTS court reform programme is being finalised without the necessary data-capturing capability built in.
TLEF’s chief executive, Matthew Smerdon said:
“If the window of opportunity was vanishing a year ago when we first published the ‘Digital Justice’ report, it is now at risk of disappearing completely. Over the last 12 months, HMCTS has made disappointingly slow progress at moving forward on any of the major recommendations made by Dr Byrom. In our view, COVID-19 cannot be an excuse. Rather, the impact of the pandemic on the court service has shone a spot-light on why it is more important than ever to improve the quality of data collection to enable the digital transformation of the court service.
“One of the Government’s own key objectives, rightly, is to improve access to justice for all, whether that means white working class men in Wakefield, inner city black teenagers in Tottenham or disabled pensioners in Ipswich. If the recommendations in this report are not implemented, services will continue to be designed without the necessary evidence that shows that they are fair to people from different backgrounds. It will undermine the whole point of the Reform Programme to improve the judicial system, reduce costs and ensure everyone has access to justice. The Government will have failed its own test.”
As a whole, the 29 recommendations in Dr Byrom’s report, if fully implemented and resourced, would ensure that the new digital services created through the Reform Programme deliver the government’s stated aim of improving access to justice and maintaining a world-class justice system.
Mr Smerdon concluded:
“The importance of taking action now cannot be understated. The success of the £1bn Reform Programme depends on it. We have the opportunity to do better and to make data, carefully collected, work harder, ensuring some of the most vulnerable groups in society get a fair hearing whilst being cost-efficient for taxpayers. I have no doubt the Ministry of Justice is serious about delivering on its promises, and we stand ready to work alongside the government to continue to provide advice and support to ensure the ambitions of the Reform Programme are realised.”