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NEF: Four ways to better courts

Blog posted by: Stephen Whitehead

For anyone passing through the criminal justice system, courts represent a major fork in the road. Potential paths include not just guilt or innocence, but prison, fines or unpaid work. What if we used courts' power more actively to pursue better results for individuals and communities?

Courts may sit at the heart of our criminal justice system, but their role is still largely seen as technical – ensuring that due process is followed and sentences are handing down consistently. Our new report today argues we should aspire to better courts – courts which play a much greater role in both holding people to account for their actions and promoting rehabilitation.

Just as they might send defendants on to prison, courts can set people on paths that go beyond the criminal justice system – into drug treatment, or education, or whatever support they need for rehabilitation and desistance from crime.

We believe that to achieve this vision, better courts must follow four principles:

  • Fairness – better courts are seen by all parties, especially victims and defendants, to be fair
  • A focus on people as well as crimes – better courts understand the backgrounds and needs of the people who come before them
  • Authority – better courts impose credible, proportionate sentences and take a greater role in enforcing them
  • Speed – better courts act swiftly, processing cases efficiently and responding quickly to breaches.

Better court innovations can and will take many forms, and some promising examples are already emerging.

For example, the Community Advice and Support Service (CASS) which operates in magistrates courts in Devon and Cornwall seeks to identify the issues underlying people’s offending, and help them access support services like alcohol and drug rehab or mental health treatment. Or the Swindon Neighbourhood Justice Panel, which seeks to resolve low-level issues before they come to court, through a process of community mediation.

We’ve identified four specific forms of innovation which we think are worth trying in England and Wales.

a. Diverting simple summary cases to more proportionate ways of dealing with them, such as Neighbourhood Justice Panels

b. New ‘procedural justice’ training for magistrates, ensuring a higher quality of communication between the court and victims, witnesses and defendants

c. Improving the information provided to sentencers about defendants and the services available in their communities to support them to desist from crime

d. Extending and strengthening the use of sentencer supervision – allowing judges and magistrates to keep contact with offenders for the duration of their sentence.

The kind of innovations that work best are those rooted in their specific local area, driven from the ground up by passionate frontline staff. Ensuring further innovation along these lines means identifying and unlocking the barriers to local innovation – whether it’s the laws that stop courts actively supporting offenders when they are on their community sentences, or the restrictive and centralised governance of courts.

This new report marks the launch of a partnership between nef and the Centre for Justice Innovation, a new organisation which seeks to support creative work across our justice system. Over the next year and beyond we will be working together to support local innovators seeking to make change in our courts, and identifying and addressing the barriers to their success.

We know that as researchers we cannot create better courts, but hopefully we can help the people who are best placed to do so – those on the ground.

2021 Public Sector Digital Marketing Summit: 22-23 September 2021