Jo Thomas

Problem-solving courts: three systems, one vision

Phil Bowen

On Monday the Centre for Justice Innovation brought together practitioners and experts from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to discuss the latest developments in problem-solving courts. At the seminar, co-hosted by the Scottish Government, we heard about a wealth of new projects emerging across the UK. From new approaches to domestic violence in Derry/Londonderry, to the growth of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts in England right through to new problem-solving approaches to female offenders in Aberdeen, practitioners across the United Kingdom are few new ways of using courts to solving old and difficult problems.

At its heart problem-solving courts are about collaboration. Judges, probation, social workers, treatment agencies, police, prosecutors and many others work together to make a difference for offenders, for victims and for communities. At the seminar we heard many different examples of this. Like the Scottish court where substance misuse and mental health workers are providing better and timelier assessments to so that courts can be more effective at placing people in treatment. Or the description from Northern Irish probation colleagues about new types of community sentences that focus on community engagement with victims and a multi-agency collaborative approach.

But just as much as collaboration matters within each problem-solving court, the seminar really emphasised the opportunities that present themselves if we can collaborate across the UK’s different jurisdictions. In my fifteen years of criminal justice reform, I’ve seen that far too often making sure that existing good ideas are identified and shared is a lower priority than new and whizzy policy ideas and structural reforms. The best antidote to that is bringing people with first-hand experience of what works together to learn from each other

What was clear from the seminar was that every problem solving court faces specifically local questions. How do you ensure that everyone who needs a problem-solving approach gets their case heard in the right court? How do judges and sheriffs shape their communication to build relationships with the offenders they are supervising?

The answers to these questions almost always develop and mature locally. But one way to solve a problem in one place can often be used as a source of inspiration and adaptation elsewhere. Almost every problem faced has been solved by someone, somewhere before. As we have learnt and put into practice in our work on youth diversion and other areas, we are committed to ensuring that sharing innovative ideas and practice across borders and even across police force and court area boundaries continues and grows. By collaborating more, we can keep the public safer.