Reform roundtable seminar on "improving value for money in the courts and tribunals service". Introduced by Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
By Tara Majumdar
A Reform roundtable seminar, led by Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, set out to discuss how the organisation could provide value for money and how it is meeting the challenge of working a lot better for less. The key theme emerging from the discussion was that since being established in April 2011 the Courts and Tribunals Service has gone back to basics: assessing what the core function of the agency should be and how this can be achieved in a way that is most effective and efficient for taxpayers.
It was very clear from the discussion that the combination of budget pressures and responding to the riots in August 2011 has forced the agency to challenge existing expectations of what services it should deliver. The central principle of the Courts and Tribunals Service should be providing access to justice, which is a combination of ensuring that due process is followed, outcomes are delivered swiftly and value for money achieved. The criminal justice system as it currently stands rarely achieves all three objectives and frequently fails to meet any sufficiently. Achieving a balance between these functions will ensure the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the public.
The challenge is how best to deliver these multiple objectives and meet the needs of stakeholders. The assumption that it is necessary to have more properties such as court houses and police stations to effectively dispense justice is increasingly being challenged. In less than two years, 142 courts have closed in England and Wales with no notable impact on service levels. In fact despite a significant spike in service demand following last year’s riots, the Courts and Tribunals service was able to process cases in hours as opposed to weeks demonstrating the potential for greater efficiency. This has helped to reduce the dependency on existing structures that are outdated and expensive.
Tighter budgets have incentivised greater cooperation and influenced criminal justice agencies to identify where joint working and the co-location of services can improve services. The movement towards digitisation has assisted this process by highlighting how disjointed current ways of working can be. For instance, the management of case files currently takes place between three groups of people using multiple paper records that are liable to be misplaced or damaged. A coordinated system that tracks the process from start to finish would increase efficiency and effectiveness across the criminal justice system. Greater transparency of criminal justice outcomes and the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners from November 2012 should promote greater collaboration and encourage reform by promoting accountability for budgets and service provision.
Ultimately a system that is focused on offering the best quality outcomes at best value needs to be flexible about who is doing the work, concentrating instead on whether it is being done well and at the right cost. The decision to implement regional pay structures in the Courts and Tribunals Service demonstrates that greater flexibility is being introduced into the workforce although it is unclear how much further this will extend.
The Courts and Tribunals Service has made progress in implementing reform and prioritising value for money. Key innovations have been developed in the use of technology, workforce reform and the contestability of services between the public, private and voluntary sectors. The challenge now is to build on existing developments and ensure that good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception, not constrained to local pilots and selective processes.
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