Data delayed is justice denied
Courts and tribunals are still trying to work in the dark
A long-awaited public database of court rulings will include only those deemed to be “legally significant”, the government has confirmed. It’s not known who will decide which cases are significant or on what grounds.
In a report today on data in the courts and tribunals system, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) asserted that the new database would “significantly improve” public access to judgments, which are currently available on a website supported by charitable donations:
We are currently working towards transferring the storage and publication of legally significant judgments to The National Archives. This new service will be introduced from April 2022. This service will save time and money for lawyers, judges, academics, journalists and members of the public who require access to judgments for vital case preparation or research purposes.
But that may not be much use to people who need judgments that selectors have dismissed as insignificant.
The HMCTS report was published just a day too late for data specialists to use it as the basis of submissions to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which will be questioning senior officials at the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS next Monday about reducing the backlog in the criminal courts.
But it would probably be of little use to the MPs. This is all that the HMCTS report has to say about the greatest problem now currently facing the criminal justice system:
We have linked together datasets to allow us to look at differences in case level data for certain services (for example on timeliness) split by protected characteristics. This analysis will be key to identifying disproportionalities and informing service design decisions that will improve access to justice. We continue to work with colleagues across the criminal justice system, including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, in relation to the collection of protected characteristics data. We are facilitating the development of common counting rules and understanding of a defendant’s journey beyond the courts and through the criminal justice system.
It’s clear from the report that little progress has been made on issues of substance, such as building data-capture into new digital services.
HMCTS also published a data strategy today. This is long on aspirations and short on detail. Because it includes neither a timetable nor a specific plan, MPs and others will not be able to assess in, say, a year’s time, whether the strategy’s “five foundational pillars” are holding up anything more than thin air.
They are, incidentally:
to gather, hold, curate, and protect the data we need now, and in the future
to manage our analysis and modelling effectively
to have the right analytical skills and culture
to use data and insight to deliver efficient and high-quality services
to open and share data safely to support transparency and allow others to innovate and deliver better services
How government works
Among the things HMCTS tells us it has “already done” is this:
Together with Ministry of Justice and the judiciary, we have set up a “shadow” senior data governance panel with a mandate to provide advice on novel and contentious data issues to inform and further improve our decision making.
This is a subtle way of undermining the senior data governance panel, which was originally intended to advise only the lord chancellor and the lord chief justice. They, in turn, would tell HMCTS what practices should be implemented.
By bringing itself on to the panel, HMCTS can mark its own homework and prevent advice it doesn’t like from reaching the lord chancellor and the lord chief justice. That was exactly the problem the panel was intended to avoid.
Much of the progress so far has been funded by the research councils and the Legal Education Foundation, a grant-making charity using legal education to foster the principles of justice and fairness.
Its director of research, Dr Natalie Byrom, said today:
Improving the data infrastructure is essential to effectively tackle the key challenges facing the justice system such as the current courts backlog.
Collecting data to understand and evaluate the efficacy of different approaches to tackling case backlogs is critical to ensuring public money is being spent effectively.
Work to improve the information we have on the experience of individuals who rely on the courts system is critical to building back fairer.
Action to ensure that data collection and sharing practices do not move beyond public acceptability is vital to maintain public trust in the courts.
Kevin Sadler, who has been acting chief executive of HMCTS since September last year, admitted in his report that “our data has yet to reach the level of consistency and simplicity necessary to allow us to exploit it to the extent we would like”.
Ultimately, he added, it would “help to deliver swift access to justice for all who need it.”
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Better still, as the festive season is upon us: