Understanding Courts

By Doug Menuez

This Working Party will build on the What is a Court? report which was published by JUSTICE in May 2016 and has since directly influenced the transformation of the court estate. What is a Court? recommended a re-focus of the court estate on the needs of the user; with flexible justice spaces that can be located closer to the communities they serve and accommodate multiple jurisdictions; and enhanced services through investment in technology for remote and virtual proceedings and appropriately trained personnel.

The Understanding Courts Working Party will also build on JUSTICE’s earlier report In the Dock (2015), which recommends the abolition of the dock due to its interference with the effective participation of the accused in their trial and the presumption of innocence. HM Courts & Tribunals Service is taking these proposals forward as part of its reform programme.

The challenge

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, less than half of people have confidence in the effectiveness of the justice system. Research has identified a disconnect between professional court users and lay people engaged in the trial process. Legal processes and constructs are confusing and distressing for the parties in cases, yet little effort has been made to truly address this. The court remains in the first instance the work place of legal professionals. As we reconfigure the court estate, and accommodate far more litigants in person, the role of the adversarial trial and legal professionals in communication of justice must be reviewed.

The Working Party

The aim of this work will be to improve the participation of court users in their own proceedings, which have a significant impact upon their lives, but from which they are often excluded by what JUSTICE considers to be overly legalistic processes.

The Working Party will look at the language, interaction and questioning processes engaged during the adversarial trial, from the user’s perspective. Four initial aspects will be considered:

  • Digitisation of the court process and ensuring this places the lay user at its centre, and will be assisted where necessary.
  • Special measures that allow for pre-recorded examination of witness evidence: the professionals involved, process utilised and its impact upon the tribunal of fact.
  • The continuing relevance of traditional and adversarial culture.
  • Adversarial questioning compared with a more investigatory approach as a means to obtaining fair and accurate evidence.

The members of the working party are:

  • Sir Nicholas Blake (Chair)
  • Her Honour Frances Kirkham CBE
  • Professor Jackie Hodgson
  • Richard Blann
  • Theo Huckle QC
  • Leslie Cuthbert
  • Professor Linda Mulcahy
  • Felicity Gerry QC
  • Emma O’Sullivan
  • Carlos Dabezies
  • David Wurtzel
  • Nick Gallagher
  • Birkbeck College London Research project
  • Natalie Kyneswood (Rapporteur)
  • Jodie Blackstock
  • Pouneh Ahari (Rapporteur)

We are very grateful to Allen & Overy who have pledged their support to the working party. The final report is expected in January 2019 and will include comprehensive, practical and realistic recommendations for reform.