Changes to HMCTS, particularly the introduction of new technology, are not aimed ‘at cutting out lawyers’ but freeing them up to give legal advice rather than ‘managing the process’, Susan Acland-Hood explained. Any fears that the pre-lunch plenary session would involve a double dose of ‘Sir Humphrey’, were quickly dispelled by Susan who would have come across as engaging, enthusiastic and open even without the benefit of following Lord Kakkar’s elegantly measured talk about the work of the JAC.
The only trace of artifice was in the ‘transformation programme’ of the title with its misleading echo of Newspeak: although changes are afoot, it quickly became clear that the Chief Executive of HMCTS is not in the grip of some grandiose vision of change but improvement through lots of little changes, something she went on to describe as the ‘lego brick’ approach, particularly in the deployment of new technology. The courts were not going find themselves saddled with a system that was ‘too big to fail’. Online pleas for non-indictable, mostly traffic offences, for example, were already producing a markedly higher response rate, which itself saved court time. The ability to fill in other forms electronically was also showing a much lower ‘fail rate’ than the filling in of the same forms on paper. The introduction of a common platform for the criminal courts, the Police and CPS would save, just within the Court Service, the re-typing of the same piece of information three times, and allow cases to be tracked in real time. It would also facilitate access to documents by the defence.
She started well by delivering an implicit rebuke to those who have hinted that, in straightened economic times, justice is something of an expensive luxury; she was doing her job, she explained ‘because we need a justice system that leads and inspires … people only touch the justice system at times of great moment in their lives and we have to make it work’. She went on to comment that we have a justice system which leads the world but does not always meet the needs of ordinary people.
She was candid about her weekly court visits in which she saw court staff whose enthusiasm and commitment she spoke of with pride, struggling with ‘toppling piles of paper and staffing levels, which did not meet needs’. By the time she ended on the thorny issue of the flexible hours pilot, the impression it had originated from an out-of-touch minister’s desk was firmly dispelled. When Acland-Hood concluded by saying ‘it will be a genuine pilot and if it doesn’t work it will not be rolled out but [because of the feedback we’ve received] I really want to trial it’, no-one doubted her sincerity.