New Report urges judges to use plain-English in courts

 

A new report published today highlights the importance of better communication both before and at court, to ensure that defendants and victims understand and abide by court decisions.

 

Often, people coming to court can be unsure what to expect. Victims can be fearful of testifying. Defendants can come away confused about what court order they have to abide by.

 

The report, from researchers at the independent charity Centre for Justice Innovation, published by the Criminal Justice Alliance promotes practical ways that courts can make court proceedings understandable and seem and feel fairer. These include:

 

  • Sending text and other written reminders about court appearances and fine payments in plain English, avoiding legal jargon.
  • Judges explaining decisions without jargon, rephrasing statements, using open-ended questions, making eye contact;
  • Court staff being on hand to clearly explain court etiquette and to help people who come to court understand what the decision of the court practically means for them.

 

The report highlights that, when courts use such techniques, it helps address the current problem of thousands of missed court appearances, can improve how fairly victims feel they have been treated and can increase the likelihood that people comply with the orders of the court. In London’s Family Drug and Alcohol court, where parents are at risk of having their children removed, research shows that fair and clear interactions between the judges and families have meant that when decisions go against parents they felt they understood the reasons for the decision and appeals were kept to a minimum.

 

Studies have also shown similar measures in US courts reduce reoffending even amongst the most violent offenders.

 

At a time when over 4,500 trials at Magistrates’ Courts and almost 2,000 Crown Court trials did not proceed as a result of the absence of witnesses and defendants, and when Sir Brian Leveson is reviewing criminal procedure rules, these practical and inexpensive steps are more urgent than ever.

 

Phil Bowen, author of the report, and Director of Centre for Justice Innovation, said:

 

“This research  shows that small practical steps to improve communication of all types for people who have to come to court can make a big difference. Judges can change how they speak to victims, who are often  concerned about what’s going to happen. Simple text messages to tell people when to appear and what to expect when they do can increase court appearances. This report suggests cheap and easy ways to make courts more efficient and effective. These sorts of steps are needed to make sure that justice is as accessible, transparent and fair as possible.”

 

Judge Nicholas Crichton, founder of London’s Family Drug and Alcohol Court said,

 

“In the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, we have seen some parents demonstrate a remarkable capacity to change in response to our more constructive, empathetic approach. Harnessing the fairness and authority of the court has shown that it is possible to break the cycle of drug and alcohol misuse.”

 

Judge John Samuels, Chairman of the Criminal Justice Alliance, said that:

 

“Sentencers, whether full-time judges or lay magistrates, frequently feel powerless to address the problems faced by those appearing in their courts with multiple social, health and addiction problems.  While they may be defendants today, the same individuals were probably victims yesterday; or will be tomorrow.  This paper identifies how sentencers can and do discover ways to address those problems through proper communication; and, by doing so, they offer all court users the prospect of more effectively resolving them.”

 

Notes to the Editor

 

For further information on the report, “To Be Fair” and for interviews with FDAC judge Nick Crichton, contact Stephen Moffatt on 0207 091 1292 or 07960 469799 or email:stephen.moffatt@criminaljusticealliance.org

 

For interviews with the authors or case studies, please contact: Arsheen Qasim on 0207 632 9070 or mobile: 07918831964 or aqasim@justiceinnovation.org

 

About the Centre for Justice Innovation

 

The Centre for Justice Innovation, an initiative of the US Center for Court Innovation seeks to introduce and support new ideas, new projects and new practice in the British criminal justice system. With a commitment to sharing learning between the US and UK, the Centre combines research and international evidence gathering with expert support to front-line practitioners to help build a more innovative and dynamic criminal justice system.

 

The Centre for Justice Innovation is supported by the Hadley Trust, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Monument Trust and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

 

About The Criminal Justice Alliance

 

The Criminal Justice Alliance is a coalition of 75 organisations working to establish a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. For more information on the Criminal Justice Alliance, see www.criminaljusticealliance.org. Although the CJA works closely with its members, this press statement should not be seen to represent the views or policy positions of each individual member organisation

 

-Ends-

 

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