It is for this reason that in March 2021, Justice Minister Naomi Long, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) director Anthony Harbinson launched a Modernisation Vision statement, outlining the principles that will govern how courts and tribunals will evolve in years to come.
Just as citizens are turning to the public and private sectors to deliver innovative, simpler and less time consuming services, they want courts and tribunals to do likewise. NICTS has, therefore, established a modernisation team, under the leadership of Chief Modernisation Officer Karen Ward, to map out and deliver its vision for its future service design, digital transformation and its estate modernisation.
Working with colleagues across the Department of Justice and in partnership with the Office of the Lord Chief Justice, the Modernisation Vision commits NICTS to delivering independent, fair and effective, modern courts and tribunals that will serve the people of Northern Ireland through the development of an innovative, collaborative and more responsive system for administering justice.
The Modernisation Programme will deliver court and tribunal services that work for everyone; that increase the effectiveness of the justice system; and that increase and improve services.
Success will mean better outcomes for citizens by implementing more accessible justice services, better use of technology and the faster end-to-end completion of cases. Services will be designed to be more straightforward to use, to promote transparency and to further inspire public confidence. It will also mean using technology in a way that will help to ease the burden on courts and tribunals staff, the judiciary and legal practitioners through more efficient administration.
Future courts and tribunals will be built around the ultilisation of modern technology, streamlined processes, enhanced management information and buildings that are fit for purpose.
The processes employed across the Courts and Tribunals Service will be more proportionate to the issues being addressed in order to save citizens time and reduce the impact on their lives. Cases of low value or less complexity will be dealt with as quickly as possible without compromising the quality of the administration of justice and parties will have options to resolve disputes out of court wherever possible.
NICTS’s modernisation team is developing a Digital Strategy and an Estates Modernisation Strategy and will do so in conjunction with staff, the judiciary, the legal profession, the wider justice family and advocacy groups who come into regular contact with the courts and tribunals service.
The scale of modernisation to be undertaken should not be underestimated and therefore, it is vital the needs and experiences of a whole range of court and tribunal users are fully captured and understood as we continue to modernise in the years ahead. Co-design will be critical to the success of each project, which is why NICTS has engaged the Office of the Lord Chief Justice, stakeholders from the Bar Council and the Law Society to victims’ advocates, Litigants in Person and the Equality Commission, among others, to guide us on how we involve different stakeholders at an early stage of project development – particularly those hard to reach groups.
This has been particularly beneficial in the development of the first modernisation pilot project – the development of an online portal for probate applications.
Through engagement with citizens who have applied to administer wills, engagement with solicitors who have applied on behalf of clients and through engagement with NICTS staff, we have been able to understand the pain points of a process that had remained largely unchanged for 163 years.
The technical solution for probate, which will be launched on 14 June, aims to make the process simpler to understand, easier to navigate and more convenient for citizens and solicitors.
However as technological solutions take root, how we use our courts and tribunals estate will inevitably change too.
Many citizens currently visit court or tribunal buildings not for hearings but to pay fines, fees, lodge claims or applications or to make enquiries. Most, if not all of these services could be delivered more responsively through online solutions but as those are introduced, our estate will have to adapt to those changes.
In addition to the Estate Strategy, a Strategic Asset Management Plan is being developed to inform how best to target investment to deliver a more consistent standard of accommodation, facilities and services for all our court and tribunal users. This includes exploring the potential for a major capital project to provide modern, flexible court and tribunal accommodation for the North-West and the potential incorporation of on-site services to provide more holistic support to citizens using courts and tribunals.
Learning from Covid
The experience of lockdown during Covid-19 has to some extent also accelerated the need for courts and tribunals to embrace technology and adapt its estate. With NICTS, in March 2020, having to initially shut all but five of its venues and drastically reduce the number of physical hearings, a lot of courts and tribunals business migrated online.
Since September 2020, courts have resumed sitting at almost all venues and all types of court business have recommenced – albeit in the context of reduced capacity due to the requirement for social distancing. As much business as possible is still being heard remotely or in the form of a hybrid hearing, as directed by a judge.
Virtual courtroom capacity has significantly increased, with ‘Sightlink’ and WebEx video conferencing technology being deployed to facilitate remote and hybrid hearings during this challenging time. As of June 2021, there are now 67 Sightlink licences and 18 Webex licences in operation across the court estate to facilitate remote and hybrid court and tribunal hearings. Courtroom technology upgrades also recommenced in August 2021 and continues with 45 courtrooms upgraded to date.
The provision of remote working facilities has also been maximised with over 300 laptops and Wi-Fi-enabled PCs provided to staff. Wi-Fi enabled PCs have been installed in courthouses to enable staff to work from locations within court buildings where network points are not available, in order to adhere to social distancing requirements.
As our society contemplates a return to something approaching normality, the justice system will learn from the change ushered in by Covid-19 and will seek to retain the benefits gained through the use of technology.
In all likelihood, courts and tribunals are not going to operate the same way they did prior to the pandemic. Technology will continue to drive change but with a modernisation programme in place, all of us, from the citizen to the solicitor and barrister to the judge, have an opportunity to shape courts and tribunals services that are suitable for the 21st Century and beyond.