A Vision for Better Courts
Originally published in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly Vol.177 No 37

Roma Hooper


The Centre for Justice Innovation and the new economics foundation’s (nef’s) ground-breaking report Better Courts: Cutting Crime Through Court Innovation poses challenging questions to our existing UK court system but crucially offers realistic opportunities for delivering better courts, increased innovation and improved justice.


The UK criminal justice system is in the process of being reshaped, through reforms to legal aid, privatization and reduction of the Probation Service, amalgamation of courts, and other changes.


Such a shake-up should provide opportunities for the public, private and voluntary sectors to deliver improved services to offenders and victims but this will not be achieved without the input of the court system.


Unless we encourage and enable the judiciary and its court system to be engaged in opportunities for change as highlighted in this report, there is a danger that this new criminal justice landscape will neglect the very plank of reform which could have a lasting impact on reducing re-offending.


However, reform must be considered against the backdrop of court closures, fewer resources available in prison and the community, and a fall in crime rates. But the key question remains: “What are the consequences of not taking advantage of the opportunity to reform and innovate in our courts?” The answer is less public confidence, less community engagement, fewer resources, less flexibility and less autonomy.


A more innovative court system can be achieved, and the report makes pragmatic and considered recommendations. With the Government embarking on systemic change to our courts, it rightly recommends enhancing the capacity of frontline practitioners to innovate and strengthen their effectiveness – after all, it is they who are able to deliver effective sentencing, which in turn will impact on the whole system.


To underpin their recommendations, the authors focus on four interlinked principles:


Fairness – for both the victim and the offender; A focus on people as well as crimes – simply passing a sentence does not reduce re-offending. The relationship between the offender, their family, the victim, those delivering the sentence and the judiciary is critical for successful crime reduction. Understanding what will encourage desistance will enable sentencing to do the best job possible in reducing further offending;


Swiftness – the faster a sentence can be delivered the more likely the offender will be to comply;


Accountability – a closer authoritative relationship between the court and the offender, going beyond just passing sentence, has been shown to achieve real results.


The report outlines how a new, practice-based vision for the adult criminal courts in England and Wales can be achieved. Embedded in this vision are these crucial principles, which allow an innovative approach to strengthening our court system to emerge that is achievable and can be put into practice.


Fortunately, excellent practice already exists, within existing resource constraints, as highlighted by the examples in the report. Yet there are clearly challenges for such practices to be fostered and expanded on a local level – court managers can be denied the autonomy they need to develop local innovation, courts have no clear role in campaigning for new or changed services and face significant budgetary restraints, and there is a lack of practice sharing.


Better courts should be an important and integral part of the Government’s drive to raise standards. But the Government must collaborate with all the key stakeholders – courts must not be left out in the cold. They can make a major contribution to an improved and effective justice system.


To cut crime through court innovation requires challenging existing perceptions, practices and prejudices; taking the politics out of the court system; working in partnership; and ensuring structures foster, and do not hinder, innovation. This is not an easy task but the reward would be a court system which is innovative, evidence-based, authoritative, cost-effective, and engaged with the local community and victims.


The Centre for Justice Innovation and nef are establishing a programme of work which can contribute to overcoming some of the challenges outlined in this report, which include strengthening the evidence base, documenting better court practice which already exists, and exploring how the governance of our courts can create an environment for innovation.


The Centre for Justice Innovation and nef would welcome hearing from you about successes and barriers to creating better courts and are seeking to support practitioners who want to make their courts better.