Justice committee: “Government needs to have access to high-quality data”

The latest report issued by the House of Commons justice committee focuses on “Court Capacity”, and in doing so, it addresses critical and overlooked issues around both transparency and accountability. In this post I summarise the main points and recommendations that relate directly to data collection and analysis, aspects which are likely to be the subject of more detailed attention in the same committee’s awaited report on open justice, following a short inquiry in 2021-22.2

What exactly is going on in the courts?

“A major problem for this inquiry has been trying to work out what exactly is going on in the courts. As the Lord Chief Justice said to us in May 2020, “because of the rather haphazard systems that still operate in a lot of our courts it has been extremely difficult to get reliable data”. Ultimately, we were struck by witnesses telling us that there was not sufficient data, or analysis undertaken to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, such as improved digital access.” …

…”This lack of data also affected the quality of evidence that we were able to take. Some witnesses were unable to fully answer questions we asked because the data was simply not available.”

Paragraph 18

The committee cites Dr Natalie Byrom, research director at the Legal Education Foundation (a tireless campaigner and advocate for better justice system data1) who, in her evidence, pointed to worrying data gaps during the pandemic period, including that (a situation that should be astonishing, but won’t be to the people who know about the dire state of court data access) “HMCTS did not have data on how many judges had sat since March 2020”. This would be, she said, like a hospital not counting the number of surgeons who had undertaken operations, or not monitoring post-operative patient outcomes. She also pointed to problems around the lack of data standards, which means it is hard to link data across the system and identify data trends and patterns.

Other data gaps were identified by the Police Fire & Crime Commissioner for Essex, who said it was difficult to build a picture of the courts backlog, with inconsistences between CPS and HMCTS data. The Law Society drew attention to an absence of data on the use of video and audio technology and the Victims’ Commissioner argued there was a lack of data “on whether cases involving vulnerable witnesses and victims were being prioritised”.

Data issues across the system

The committee heard from MOJ and HMCTS senior civil servants about improvements being made to data collection and management across the whole criminal justice system (and the then HMCTS CEO, Kevin Sadler, pointed to the adoption of Byrom’s 2019 report recommendations on courts data more broadly). However, while the committee recognised that MoJ and HMCTS are taking steps to improve the data situation, it “stress[es] that the level of improvement required will need a sustained focus and significant investment”.

“Improving the quality of data in the justice system will help the MoJ to determine whether the courts have the capacity they need to deal with cases in a timely fashion. The Government needs to have access to high-quality data in order to be able predict how the number of cases are likely to change and to be able to analyse the ability of the courts to process cases.”

Paragraph 23

“The Ministry of Justice must ensure that it ring-fences funding from Spending Review 2021 to expedite work to deliver on its commitments to improve data, as well as allocating funding for this work as part of Spending Review 2022. In so doing, the MoJ should publish a detailed timetable for implementation to ensure it is accountable for progress.”

Paragraph 24

Reference is also made to the role of ‘justice scorecards‘ in improving court efficiency, which Government seems to be prioritising as a, if not the, key justice data activity at present (based on public statements by ministers – example). The committee finds:

“There is more that can be done to make listing more transparent and effective, for example by distinguishing between listing decisions based on court capacity and those based on case progression. The development of local justice scorecards will help to identify where delays are particularly acute. In terms of effectiveness, national level guidance on listing certain types of cases, such as that produced by the Lord Chief Justice on remote attendance, would be valuable.”

Paragraph 74

On the latter point, the report’s discussion on remote attendance is focussed on parties and representatives and does not discuss the position for public observers (e.g. the media, family members) – it seems likely (and I hope) that this will be covered in the committee’s separate report on open justice, following the short inquiry in 2021-22.

With regard to data collection in the magistrates’ courts, the committee recommends:

“In the long-term, the MoJ should use research on remote hearings, such as the Evaluation of remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic, to develop guidance and policies on when video hearings should be used in the magistrates’ courts.”

Paragraph 78

More generally, the committee makes a case for a Royal Commission on the criminal justice system:

“The evidence to this inquiry has shown that the criminal courts are going through a period of significant change and the question of the role of technology in the courts is particularly pressing. The Government should proceed with its manifesto commitment to establish a Royal Commission on the criminal justice processes.”

Paragraph 85

Should this happen, the data issues would surely have to be given serious consideration – and no doubt such a Royal Commission will find itself hampered by the data gaps identified in this report.

Data issues were also identified in the country courts: the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, told the committee that the limited data available on the County Court makes analysis of capacity very difficult: “it ought to be possible for me to say with confidence how many cases are waiting to be disposed of in the County Court, how long they are taking and all the rest of it, but that is not possible because, as so much is still not digitised, the data is very poor”.

The committee asked the Lord Chief Justice and the Ministry of Justice if there was any data available on the reasons that cases are taken out of the list at short notice. It was told by HMCTS that the current case management system does not capture this information. According to the Government a new case management system, ‘Core Case Data’, will remedy the situation.

The committee asks the Government:

“…to confirm the timeline for the rollout of Core Case Data. Once the data is available, the Government should also publish local civil justice scorecards to enhance the transparency of timeliness in the civil and family courts.”

Paragraph 110

Where next?

Overall, the committee highlights important justice system data gaps that are only too well-known to justice and courts specialists, and in response, makes some helpful recommendations. The question is, of course, whether Government is prepared to act on the recommendations (in tandem with existing data work) and make this a priority area – despite the apparent lack of interest by the current secretary of state for justice.

Notes

  1. Disclosure – I have engaged and worked with Natalie Byrom on these topics over the past few years, including being commissioned by TLEF to undertake a project on justice system data in 2021.
  2. I provided oral and written evidence to the committee.

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