The pandemic has had a silver lining, Courts Service Chief Executive Angela Denning has said, in terms of increased collaboration with other justice agencies.
The chief executive told the Law Society’s John Lunney, at a ‘Future of Legal Practice’ discussion on 6 May, that the virus had accelerated necessary reforms in the courts system, bringing about a more user-centric approach.
Denning commented that a well-functioning court system was a key function underpinning any sound democracy.
Courts IT systems were now being properly funded, unlike previously, Denning commented. However, cyber-security was now a significant worry, she said, specifically after the recent hack on HSE computer systems.
‘Digitising the mess’
Traditionally, what was done was “digitising the mess”, she said. “That’s just not a runner anymore,” she said, and mandatory online filing would be inevitable – but in a way that would work for all court users.
“Worldwide, courts are now at a crossroads where we have to decide ‘do we go back to the old way entirely, or do we keep moving forward?’, she said. “I don't think anybody is in favour of going back to the old ways,” she added.
Previously, she said that the Courts Service didn't have enough staff for digital transformation: “The entire structure around that was wrong – there were foundational problems that didn't fit an organisation that wanted to change,” she added.
Digital change has now been introduced, in line with the ten-year strategic plan for the service, running until 2030.
Simplification of processes
There will be simplification of processes ahead, with the existing court paperwork eventually digitised, in line with suggestions by the Kelly Review of civil justice.
An implementation plan for that review will be launched shortly, Denning added.
“We have 900 court forms … they’re bananas, I’m the first one to say that,” said Denning.
Agile and iterative development styles were now in place, with a ‘dummy’ system shown to practitioners for feedback. This has been shared with IT staff, Denning explained.
There will be end-to-end online debt collection by next year, as well as end-to-end divorce applications, the chief executive said.
Better buildings will also improve matters. In fact, Denning signed-off on the business case for the new family law complex in Dublin 7 before the Easter break.
“The planning for Hammond Lane is well underway at this stage,” she said, adding that a brand new state-of-the-art family law building will be in Dublin by the early years of practice of current trainees.
A huge ‘pinch-point’ in family law has been the lack of use of plain English, and information accessibility, Denning added.
Self-service data entry
Solicitors will be able to do data entry themselves for these new systems, with no ‘double-entry’ of information.
At the onset of the virus, a decision was taken that the courts would stay open – no matter what – with crime matters and family-law cases prioritised, despite some dissenting voices. who wanted everything closed, Denning explained.
Staggered lists were a great help in managing footfall, she added, as well as online appointment-booking systems in public offices.
Remote courts were up and running by 17 April 2020, with the Supreme Court going first, after consideration of questions of constitutionality.
The decision was taken that justice could still be “administered in public”, albeit online.
Remote hearings have had knock-on benefits, both in terms of keeping prisoners safe, and for victims of crime in not having to sit in court.
“We are seeing more hybrid cases now, with some people in the court room, and some at home. From a practitioner’s perspective, the benefits have really been seen in short applications.”
This type of non-complex application will be kept online in future, Denning added, with significant time savings for rural practitioners.
Low court waiting times
Low court waiting times are a ‘key performance indicator’ for the Courts Service, Angela Denning said.
The Courts Service has 1,200 staff working in 100 venues around the country, and is responsible for the smooth functioning of the work of 181 judges, and 25,000 court sittings each year. Interpreters are involved in over 10,000 court cases each year.
The body also administers €2 billion in funds for 2,800 wards of court, oversees 450,000 criminal matters and 250,000 civil matters each year, with 120,000 jury summonses issued annually.