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Interview with Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, HMCTS: Part One: the challenge and my qualifications for the role

Beverley Barton, one of the editors in the Practical Law Dispute Resolution team, was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

In Part One of a series of blogs, Susan talks about some of the challenges she faces in her role, and the skills that equip her for the task. In Part Two, she discusses some of her impressions of the civil justice system, and the role it has to play in society as a whole. In Part Three, she provides an update on the courts modernisation programme.

On 21 November last year, you took up post as Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). That is obviously quite a challenge. I don’t think that anyone would fail to recognise that it is a challenging role. What skills equip you for the task? Why do you think you are equipped to do that role? What do you think your relevant skills are?

The first thing I would say is that it is an incredible privilege to do this job, I’m really delighted to be doing it and I’m proud to be leading HMCTS. We’ve got a £1 billion modernisation programme to take through, and I can’t think of anything more important and fulfilling to do than changing such an incredibly important public service for the better, and helping it move on.

In terms of the sort of things I bring to the role, I am a pretty experienced public sector leader. My career has basically been all about changing public services for the better: sometimes through policy, and sometimes leading delivery. For example, as Director of Education Funding I thought about education funding policy but also had a big delivery job to do, focussed on making sure there were enough school places for the very sharply growing population of children across England and Wales. We also completely changed the way we did maintenance allocations: something the National Audit Office (NAO) commented on very positively (which doesn’t often happen).

In terms of how I do that, it’s always difficult to sort of say these things without getting a bit big-headed! I think I’ve got a good strategic sense. People tell me I lead well, I’m good at being visible and setting out clear messages, saying things that make sense to people. Fundamentally, I am about getting things done. I like making a difference. I’ve made a career of doing things other people thought might be impossible, and I am quite good at navigating Whitehall, which is only a small part of the job, but there are moments when it is quite an important bit to get right.

People will be quite encouraged by a lot of those things and the communication piece as well.

I’m keen for HMCTS to be more open. Sometimes, I’ve heard that it has had a reputation of being quite closed. Something I’ve done a lot in my career is talking to lots of people, being open to stakeholders, and making sure that we’re growing “big families” around what we are doing. I’m aiming to do that at HMCTS as well.

Just to go back to basics, could you briefly explain how the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HMCTS work together? Is it just the case that the MoJ has the overarching, broader control – and its remit extends to things like the prisons – whilst you are focussed on courts and tribunals? How do you work together and what is the split? Is it that you are focussed on courts and tribunals and they’re looking at the bigger piece?

Yes, but it’s not just a difference of scope. You’re right that the MoJ is the core department that is responsible for policy across the whole of the justice system, whereas HMCTS is about running courts and tribunals and implementing the modernisation programme. But there is a more fundamental difference, which is that the MoJ is a government department (it is fully part of the executive), and HMCTS is run jointly by the judiciary and the executive.

I report jointly to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I’m not just thinking about what I am doing for the government of the day, I’m also thinking about how HMCTS runs for the judiciary and works with them. That makes the role slightly different, maybe even unique.

That’s interesting because, currently, we are seeing a mix of judge-led and government driven initiatives in the civil justice arena.

I think that’s a really good observation, but, in a sense, the fundamentals of the way HMCTS works is that it is doing both and pulling those two pieces together, particularly in relation to the modernisation programme. The vision document that was published jointly by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice last autumn says that really clearly, that the modernisation programme is led by the judiciary and the executive together.

No doubt, some will have commented on the fact that you don’t have a legal background. How would you counter that? What have you been doing to get an understanding of court users’ perspectives (people with claims and also solicitors and barristers)? Do you think there are benefits coming in with fresh eyes?

I’ve spent about half of my career working on home affairs and justice issues. I was head of strategy at the Home Office and I worked twice at Number 10 on home affairs and justice issues, so I’ve got a reasonably good sense of the big “moving parts”. But you’re right that I’m not a lawyer, and I think it’s really interesting that you pick up that point about court users’ perspectives more widely in your question.

The key thing for me is trying to make sure that we really are thinking about the users of the system. In my first six months, I spent quite a lot of time (I try and do at least one visit a week to a court or tribunal) talking to court users, court staff, the judiciary, as well as advocates and solicitors as well. One observation is that, unlike other public services, we have huge numbers of people who will only touch us once or twice in their lives. So, there often isn’t an obvious “population” of court users or court user groups (except, possibly, for repeat criminal offenders who appear in the system in a slightly different guise). Therefore, I think we have to work particularly hard to make sure that the user voice is heard.

And there is no one user profile, that’s the challenge too.

Yes, absolutely.

Earlier this year, Practical Law helped to organise a claimant event in the context of Jackson LJ’s fixed costs review, and it really made me think about how many different types of claimant there are.

That’s a really good point. Whereas if you’re running a railway, you’ve got passenger action groups who see themselves as passengers because they’re travelling everyday, and if you’re running schools you’ve got parents groups who are really powerful (and the parent voice in society is quite strong). But interestingly, particularly in the civil system, you’ve got bulk users, but also lots and lots of people who use the civil justice system who touch it once. They don’t see themselves as a user of the justice system; they see themselves as someone who’s gone through something very difficult in their lives, which has meant they have had to come to the law. As I say, we have to fight quite hard to get those voices heard in the system. It’s not completely surprising that sometimes we get criticism of the civil justice system, as it feels more set up around professional users than around citizens.

It’s a challenge, definitely. And another dimension is the fact that, probably, most people are hoping they’ll never have to use the civil justice system.

The importance of the law and part of the protection that it offers us all doesn’t come from using it, it comes from not having to, because it’s there and it’s a back stop or an umbrella.

Obviously, you have an exceptionally broad remit, having to consider family, criminal, immigration, employment and other sectors. How do you balance the competing demands, all competing for time and money as well?

I think the first thing to say is that I’ve got a very good, strong, top team. HMCTS has a huge number of impressive and committed people. We think partly about the system on jurisdictional lines, partly about geography, and partly about the types of service we are providing. We have people thinking about each of those aspects all the time.

Thinking about how I personally balance the competing demands, you have to recognise that you can’t do everything yourself; you’ve got to rely on people to do things and you’ve got to be good at triage. You’ve got to be good at understanding where the next priority is coming from, both urgent and important (which are not always the same). You’ve also got to be the kind of person who can crack problems as they arise. There is a very good leadership quote by Colin Powell, who says, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

So there is something for me about being ready to take the thing that looks like it needs my intervention, and to intervene on it quickly and decisively and make a difference. Otherwise, my key role is supporting and empowering people who work for me to do their jobs. Nobody can be everywhere, doing everything. You’ve got to be about making the whole system work.

How many people are there in the team as a whole?

In HMCTS there are about 17,000 employees. That includes everyone working in the court system (including, for example, court clerks, administrative staff and court advisers).

HM Courts & Tribunals Service Practical Law Dispute Resolution Susan Acland-Hood Beverley Barton

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