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The court of public opinion
Pic: Cian Redmond

13 Dec 2023 / courts Print

The court of public opinion

Angela Denning is upbeat as she describes the new Hammond Lane family-law complex in Dublin 7.

Denning (pictured) believes it will be a game-changer for court users and legal practitioners, and speaks with excitement about the 19 courtrooms, consultation rooms, and a ‘decompression’ seating area of green space at the front of the triangular building, which looks out to the LUAS stop in Smithfield Square.

The back of the building will face on to Church Street. There will be limited parking, apart from wheelchair car-parking spaces and prison vans, in line with the policy for new public buildings.

In Limerick City’s courthouse, sound-proofed booths have been installed under the stairs for quick consultations or private phone calls, and the same pods will be built into the Hammond Lane complex, she says.

Denning is optimistic about the planning process, saying that it is well advanced and pointing out that the inside of the building is fully designed.

The long triangular building will have ramp access and be fully accessible, with a public coffee shop on the ground floor, as well as a buggy park.

On entering the building, all 19 courtrooms will be situated over multiple floors at the right-hand side. Sited opposite will be Courts Service, Legal Aid Board, mediation service, and domestic-violence offices, while the judges’ chambers and staff accommodation will be located on the upper floors.

Family law is where the real pressure on facilities lies in Dublin, Denning agrees. Once planning is achieved, the elongated procurement process – expected to take about a year – will begin.

Following a 30-month build and fit-out, Denning expects the complex to be up and running by 2028.

In other building projects, Four Courts’ restoration work and protection of its dome is ongoing, with repair works being carried out to the decorative stone capitals that support it, with the hope that all will be completed by mid-decade.

‘Marvellous surprise’

Denning says that no one was as taken aback as herself when she was appointed chief executive of the Courts Service in 2019: “It was a marvellous surprise!” she laughs.

Cavan native Denning, who studied computer science at Trinity College and is also a qualified barrister, has IPA training in strategy and leadership.

She has had a long career in the Courts Service, including the Probate Office, working on the non-jury judicial-review list, and as deputy master of the High Court, handling pre-trial applications and making interim court orders.

She also did a stint handling transparency and ethics, lobbying, dealing with freedom-of-information requests, and whistleblowing legislation at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The almost immediate onset of pandemic conditions after Angela arrived in the job allowed for an accelerated programme of modernisation, which probably would have taken considerably longer in more normal times, she reflects.

‘A settler’

“COVID was a ‘settler’, because court operations came very much to the forefront. I was very lucky with the management team – we had a lot of people who come from a court operations background, so we knew exactly what needed to be done in order to keep the courthouse doors open and keep people safe.

“From the start, we said we weren’t closing, because there was pressure on us to close completely,” Denning adds. “Had we closed, gardaí would have had nowhere to bring detainees.”

Open courts underpin democracy so, for Denning, closure was never an option – no matter what. It wasn’t a fight to stay open, but there were certainly dissenting views, she admits: “There were areas of society that were very afraid.”

The Courts Service staff set about building understanding for safe operations among all court users, and prioritised the urgent work of the District Court, particularly in domestic-violence cases.

Increased use of technology was the only option in the collegiate courts in the face of the virus.

“It allowed us to accelerate some things that we almost take for granted now,” Denning explains. For instance, there was experimentation with various technical options in order to test for security and inter-operability, allowing long-term solutions to emerge. File uploading by solicitors allowed judges to read documents in advance and manage their own caseloads.

Consultative programme

Denning was determined that the modernisation programme was going to be highly consultative, and user test-groups met fortnightly with representatives from across the justice sector.

“As we came out of COVID, we kept those groups and those contacts going, and we’ve been able to morph them into other areas of work, such as desktop technology for judges in courtrooms,” she explains.

Courts Service IT staff are in regular contact with judges to help with necessary upskilling.

“The judges have been great, in that a lot of them have agreed to be ‘guinea pigs’ for different types of technology,” comments Denning.

“No matter what technology we use into the future, it has to work for everyone. It has to be accessible for everyone and be highly intuitive. There’s a real demand from solicitors, and particularly from younger solicitors, to use technology. They use it in their everyday lives, so they can’t understand why it’s not available,” Angela Denning says.

Great feedback

“It’s exciting. I’ve seen the green shoots of improvements for the ordinary people who use the courts. We’re getting great feedback on the family-law information and infographics on the website,” she says.

“Solicitors say that the information is useful for putting clients in the frame of mind to discuss their case and to know what’s expected of them.”

Pilots are under way, such that, in domestic-violence cases, evidence may be given from a local garda station or shelter. The ability for solicitors to dial in to court for short applications is also a considerable timesaver.

All Courts Service staff now have laptops and mobile phones to access their emails on the road, eliminating dependence on some very old technology, and improving both security and collaboration.

Judges increasingly have their laptops on the bench, from the Supreme Court down, Denning says.

Early adopters

Naturally, the courts have a cohort of early adopters, as well as some tech latecomers. Across the board though, the efficiency benefits are too obvious to be ignored, the chief executive says.

In 120 video-enabled courtrooms, remote evidence-giving is possible, and the practical flexibility of the technology now means fewer adjournments, particularly in civil and family-law cases.

“From our perspective, it means that more cases get on the day they were supposed to get on,” says Denning. “That’s to everybody’s benefit.”

Adjournments were a huge draw on a system with tight resources, she adds.

The massive reduction in the transportation of prisoners for court hearings has also had positive knock-on effects, leading to less disruption in jail education, Denning says.

The Prison Service can use its resources better, given the reduction in transport costs, and prisoners themselves prefer remote hearings, particularly those with mental-health problems. Prisoners have also been allowed to use the technology for evening-time family contact, she says.

An online system for jury summonses has a user engagement rate of over 50%, while would-be jurors use QR codes to accept or seek to be excused.

The system also allows instant communication in the case of unexpected court cancellations, which were a cause of juror frustration.

“We’re very conscious that we still have a group of people who can’t use technology, but we also have a really high mobile-phone usage of almost 96% in this country,” says Denning. “People have told us they want to engage with us digitally. With user feedback, we’ve been able to improve the platform for the user as we go along. We’re scoping out what help jurors need after jury service, for example, for work purposes.”

Jurors may also be directed towards support services after a traumatic trial. “It is the only ‘national service’ we have in this country, really, and, without it, the criminal-justice system just can’t function. We’re calling an increased number of jurors now because we have increased numbers of trials and an increased number of judges.”

The length of time between people being called will shorten as a result, Denning said. The use of data will also ensure that people who were excused from service aren’t called again. “The new electronic electoral register will help us hugely,” adds Denning.

“There’s a lack of awareness about how important it is to go and serve if you’re called. There’s a bit of negativity that could be dispelled. The reality is that, if something happens to you or to your family, you want a trial by a jury of your peers.

"This was something that, during COVID, came home clear and strong, that the most important people in the room in a criminal trial are the jury. It’s a fundamental part of our system of justice.”

Case management

The Courts Service is developing a unified case-management system that will yield very useful data and eliminate the need for manual entry of caseloads, thus supporting the work of the Judicial Planning Working Group.

A High Court pilot portal will allow solicitors to issue their case filings online and, likewise, get their court order at the end of the case.

The goal is a one-input scenario, giving solicitors their own view of cases in an automated Legal Diary.

“If we can automate the Legal Diary, that’s a huge bulk of work,” Denning says. “It’s an administrative nightmare every day, done with hundreds of Word documents. If we can automate that, from our staff perspective, that’s a huge time saving.”

The ability to block-select case lists will also be a benefit and deliver better services for court users, Denning adds.

Shifting gears

Angela Denning believes the Courts Service proved its agility during the pandemic. “I do think COVID showed that we were able to shift gears very quickly. If we had the data, it really helped us to target backlogs. I much prefer targeted interventions where you stop the backlog from growing.”

2023/24 will see some ‘heavy lifting’ in terms of IT moving to the next stage of the modernisation programme by the end of 2025.

In 2025 – the halfway point of modernisation – the benefits will start accruing to the taxpayer, the chief executive says. That year will see the elimination of manual interventions and the end of ‘moving around’ paper documents.

Huge improvements in efficiency are on the way for legal practitioners, too, she pledges, with far fewer in-person actions.

“I would prefer to see more court clerks and more court sittings, with less staff doing that administrative work – freeing up those back-office staff to help court users. Staff would be less pressurised and could spend more time with the customers who need it, including vulnerable people, such as those with hearing problems.”

Capturing the imagination

“Our modernisation programme has captured the imagination, and our people see that what they do here is really worthwhile,” Denning says.

“We did a staff survey last year, and the sense of purpose that our staff have about the importance of their work is wonderful,” she adds, praising the dedication and commitment shown during difficult pandemic times.

“We’ve always been an organisation that gives service to the public, seven days a week, 365 days of the year,” she concludes. Denning’s key message is that she wants to keep working with solicitors and the Law Society on improving the Courts Service, and in continuing to get valuable feedback: “We make things better by working together.”

Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie