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Interview with Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, HMCTS: Part Two: early impressions

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 talked about some of the challenges she faces in her role, and the skills that equip her for the task. Now, 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.

From your CV on the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) website, it seems as if you have done quite a number of relatively short-term assignments, with one year as Director of Enterprise and Growth at HM Treasury, and two years in your role as Director of Education Funding at the Department for Education. The courts service is currently in the midst of an ambitious and long-term modernisation programme. Do you plan to oversee the whole process?

Yes, I do.

Is it quite attractive to you?

Yes. I think, as you observe, it is fundamentally a different kind of job (particularly to the two most recent roles I’ve had, which were quite policy focussed). When you are doing a central government policy job, you can change a lot in quite a short period of time, because you are changing the framework and concepts. I am really proud of what I achieved in both of those roles, and I know I did a lot in a short time. But this job is different; in this job, doing it well means staying longer and seeing it through. So that’s what I want to do.

It’s such a challenging project and it is long term, and I think it would be very satisfying to see it actually delivered and working. For instance, seeing a working online court that people are using, that would really be quite something.

Absolutely.

Your previous roles demonstrate quite a focus on finance. We’re clearly still facing turbulent economic times, and need to keep an eye on the finances. But what about the bigger picture? Some would say that the rule of law is so fundamental to our society that it can’t just all be about making the accounts balance. How would you respond to concerns about the impact (particularly in terms of access to justice) of recent significant increases to court fees and court closures, for example?

It’s absolutely not just about making the accounts balance.

It’s about how we provide the best possible service, and about making a system that really works properly for people. My last two roles were relatively finance based, but they were the only ones that were. In most of my other roles, though I always try to keep the taxpayer in mind, I have been much more focussed on spending well than on cutting back. Even in my role at the Treasury, I did supply side economic policy, which was all about how we could spend money to help the economy grow more effectively, rather than about cutting.

It is reassuring that you plan look at civil justice from that perspective, and, of course, civil justice brings quite a lot of money into the economy.

Absolutely, and I actually do think that is one of the things I bring.

Traditionally, the home affairs and justice “space” in government hasn’t been seen as an “economic” bit of the government service, but, actually, I think it is a highly economic piece. I also think what you said about civil justice is exactly right, and (partly in a Brexit context, but equally more widely than that) we can do a bit more as a government to think about legal services through that economic supply side lens, and in terms of what can we do to grow the economy.

If you look at the Commercial Court, a very high proportion of cases currently involve foreign parties, who have chosen to use our justice system.

Absolutely. And the Business and Property Court change is part of that.

Obviously you are quite new in this role. I don’t know if you had expectations of what you were going to find, but I’m sure there has been a pretty steep learning curve since you started. What has struck you most about the civil justice system: what are your early impressions – positive or negative – as you’ve been getting to grips with HMCTS?

If I just talk about my impressions of HMCTS as a whole: I said earlier, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the people I have working for me, but also the people who work across the system as a whole.

We have a world class judiciary, and we have world class lawyers. We operate a system that is the jurisdiction of choice, where people choose to a very great extent. As I go round and talk to people, I am impressed, again and again, by the commitment people show, and the way they do the work. My staff spend a lot of their time thinking about the improvements they can make to the system. Previous chief executives have worked quite a lot on developing a culture of continuous improvement, and quite a lot of work goes on around “what can you do with your team today that is going to make the system work better?”.

I think one of the challenges we’ve got, though, is that it still seems, sometimes, as though the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Everywhere I go, I hear the judges tell me, “the staff in my court are absolutely wonderful, they go the extra mile, they go above and beyond. But HMCTS as a whole, I’m not so sure about.” I think that is partly because we have gone a very long way when it comes to making a small, incremental, local improvements, but we are fundamentally improving an incredibly paper heavy, cumbersome, really quite out of date set of systems. We are reaching the limit of what we can do through incremental change, and we’ve also been doing that at a time of constrained resources. For me, the heart of reform is about getting to a point where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and we are changing those things that, at the moment, are acting as a constraint on people’s innovation, creativity, and ability to serve citizens really well.

In the civil courts system, you continue to see an absolutely phenomenal amount of paper. Huge amounts of paper. I’ve got some pictures of the most dramatic piles of paper that I have seen on my travels. I know it sounds trite, but it really is a striking feature of the system. This is how we run the system at the moment. You don’t find that many other public services that still look like that. There comes a moment where you reach the limit of how effective and efficient you can be, when what you are fundamentally doing is moving a large pile of paper from point A to point B.

It is said that a number of hearings don’t go ahead because of court files being lost.

My honest reflection on that, when I go round the system and see how people are working – and the processes and systems with which they are working at the moment – is that it is completely remarkable that we don’t lose more things, more often. I think my staff do an absolutely phenomenal job, and we have a lot of safeguards, systems and processes. You were surprised earlier that we have 17,000 people working in the court system, and, partly, we have 17,000 because it takes a lot of people to run a paper-intensive system. There’s a lot of checking and counter-checking. There is a lot of moving paper physically round buildings. There’s a lot of photocopying things and checking you’ve got photocopies in the right order.

For me, my early impressions of the system have really reinforced the changes we are making. They’ve reaffirmed that we can do a lot more to make the system work well for users, and that aiming to focus the way we work on the citizen – the court user – must be the right thing to do. We need to go digital because it enables other change, not for its own sake. For example, it will mean that people are looking at one version of the same file, rather than multiple copied versions. That doesn’t just speed you up a little bit. It fundamentally changes the way you can work. We are starting to see that in the Crown Court, with the digital case system, where the number of times that cases are adjourned because somebody says, “I sent this on Thursday”, and the other side says, “I haven’t got it”, have come shooting down, because everybody is looking at a single version of the truth together. So everyone is viewing the same thing. And if you did put something on the system on Thursday, the system knows you put it on the system on Thursday and that the other side was notified, so (frankly) there are fewer excuses and fewer delays.

One of my impressions as a court user, it’s things like trying to phone, and nobody picking up, and also, to some extent, it’s the feeling of slightly jaded people, because they feel they are under so much pressure now. I think they are two things I’ve noticed.

That brings us back to the same place again. I do think there are times when, in a pressed court, if a member of staff can either pick up the phone or make sure the paperwork is on the judge’s desk in the right order, then, at the margin, they will tend to put the paperwork in the right order and put it on the judge’s desk. I understand that choice but don’t like it very much, because I think we should be picking up the phone. Again, we need to get ourselves to a place where we have not only managed our “paper heaviness” down into a digital system, but are also using more modern methods for responding to people who are phoning the courts.

We now have a number of courts where we’ve got centralised call handling in Loughborough. On average, we answer calls to Loughborough within 46 seconds. We’ve got staff trained in the different jurisdictions, and information about all the courts whose calls they take; which means that they can answer the vast majority of the most likely queries that people will have – and they can refer – on the small number that need it. That means everyone gets their questions answered far faster and more reliably than in the old model of everyone phoning the court direct; and staff aren’t pulled in two directions. Our biggest challenge now is that we have more courts (including court users) asking for their calls to be centralised than we can manage in Loughborough, so we are starting to stand up other centres to build on the model.

 

Do join us for the final part of the interview (to be published soon) in which Susan provides an update on the courts modernisation programme.

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

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