Putting problem-solving courts into practice: lessons from experience

Earlier this year, the Centre for Justice Innovation and the Scottish Government brought together a group of practitioners from Scotland and Northern Ireland, to share their experiences of implementing problem-solving. We asked them to talk about the changes that they had made, the barriers they had had to overcome and the resources and support which made it possible.

The workshop was a showcase of the range of problem solving court work going on in the two jurisdictions, from one of the UK’s longest-running drug courts, to projects which are just preparing to admit their first clients.

This note profiles some of the projects who took part, and shares some of the lessons which participants had learned from the experience delivering problem-solving.

Problem-solving courts in Scotland and Northern Ireland

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen an upsurge of interest in problem-solving in recent years. Scotland has a long history of problem-solving, but new activity had died down until the 2012 report of the Angiolini Commission on Women Offenders which recommended a new pilot programme for problem-solving. This led to the development of a new generation of courts which draw on local resources to provide joined-up support to offenders.

Four Scottish courts took part in the event:

  • Glasgow Drug Court is one of the UK’s oldest problem-solving courts. Operating from Glasgow Sherriff’s Court since 2001, it provides a co-ordinated package of support and supervision to offenders whose substance misuse is driving their offending. The court has a dedicated support service which includes clinicians, social workers and substance misuse workers.
  • The Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach seeks to reduce the use of short custodial sentences by providing new community disposals to women and young adult males with complex needs and multiple previous convictions. It has been supported by the Scottish Government after Aberdeen won a competitive bidding process to be the site of the Angiolini commission pilot.
  • Edinburgh Alcohol Problem-Solving Court seeks to provide alcohol-dependent offenders with quicker assessment, speedier access to interventions, and regular oversight by the Sheriff through progress reviews. The project is a partnership between the court, the local authority and CLG a local treatment provider. The partners originally assembled to respond to a call for proposals from the Scottish Government but after the bid was unsuccessful, the partners decided to go ahead using local resources.
  • Forfar Problem-Solving Court, which opened in January 2017, provides support and supervision to persistent offenders through a specialist court hearing and tailored support services. The project has its origins in a partnership between sheriffs sitting in Arbroath Sheriff Court and the Glen Isla Project, a women’s community justice centre run by Criminal Justice Social Workers from Angus Council.

Problem-solving justice was named as a priority in the draft programme of government for 2016-2012, developed by the Northern Ireland executive. Whilst political uncertainty has delayed the implementation of the programme, staff from the executive’s Department of Justice are working with practitioners to establish a range of pilots, exploring different models for courts to work more closely with support services:

  • Enhanced Combination Orders were one of the first problem-solving practices trialled in Northern Ireland. They aim to provide an effective alternative to short-term custodial sentences by using an existing community option through the Probation Board in a more intensive package with a focus on rehabilitation, reparation, restorative practice and desistance. A judiciary-backed pilot project has been running in the Newtownards and Armagh court areas since October 2015.
  • The Domestic Violence programme pilot in Derry will provide the judiciary with the option to refer convicted perpetrators participate in a therapeutic behaviour change programme before sentencing takes place. The programme will be delivered by the Probation Board with regular monitoring by the judiciary. Successful completion of the programme will be taken into account at sentencing.
  • The Substance Misuse Court pilot will seek to learn from the international history of drug courts to reduce reoffending and support rehabilitation. The pilot will seek to support a dedicated court with a multi-agency supervision and assessment team which delivers medical and other services. The participants’ progress and any risks they pose to the public will be monitored and reported back to the court.

Putting problem-solving into practice

Problem-solving courts are defined by four core components:

  • Specialisation of the court model around a target group, whether it’s problematic drug users, young adults or people committing crimes in a certain geographical area.
  • Collaborative intervention and supervision between courts and other agencies to support offenders and implement new ideas.
  • A procedurally fair environment – ensuring that defendants feel that the system has treated them fairly, even if they don’t like the outcome.
  • Accountability through judicial monitoring, using regular court supervision hearings.

We asked participants at the event to share their experiences of implementing these components in their local areas, and to reflect on what they looked like in practice, what barriers they had had to overcome and what resources and support they needed for successful delivery.

Specialisation of the court model around a target group

Participants told us that for courts to successfully specialisation work requires a clear and widely shared set of eligibility criteria, so that all the agencies were clear on which defendants should be directed to the court. It was seen as important the criteria were rooted in the local context and responsive to local needs. Some of the participants also said that their project would be stronger if they had clear mechanisms for diverting low level cases away from prosecution altogether, when they were referred in.

Many of the projects have adapted existing assessment tools to help them identify relevant clients. Participants noted that it can be difficult to balance the court’s desire for a speedy pre-sentence assessment with the rigor needed to determine whether the offender is a good fit for the project. They also noted that conducting in-depth assessment was somewhat labour intensive, which made it difficult for already stretched court assessors. The process was complicated by sometimes weak arrangements for information sharing between different agencies which meant that it was hard to bring together all of the background information which would support effective decision making. In some places, it was felt that additional funding was needed in order to deliver reports in appropriate timescales and in other places, this had been and could be met within existing resources.

Another important aspect of specialisation was ensuring that the professional working in problem-solving courts had a good understanding of their specialist issues. Although training was seen as useful, this could be difficult due to limitations of budgets and time, but staff could develop their understanding by working closely with specialist services and learning more about the way that they worked.

Collaborative innovation and supervision

Participants identified several different levels of collaboration. Firstly, they stressed the importance of co-ordination between the key people within the court, such as the judge, courts staff, prosecutors and probation officers. They stressed how important it was to have a consistent team within the court in order to help them develop a shared way of working. Some sites brought the key players together each morning to review the day’s case list and agreed a shared approach, although not all sites felt it was appropriate for judges to attend those meetings.

Outside the courtroom, participants stressed that the importance of an effective multi-disciplinary support team. In some sites, such as Glasgow, there was a dedicated service attached to the court, but more often courts worked with existing services in the community, such as drug-treatment providers or women’s centres. However, in some sites, weak pre-existing relationships between agencies and incompatible IT structure sometime presented real barriers to collaboration and, in particular information sharing. This could often led to staff having to use time-consuming manual work around which.

However, collaborative support was only possible when there were sufficient resources available for services in the community. Practitioners told us that they needed assistance in making a case for local funding which highlights the issues faced by problem-solving clients and the potential social benefit which can be achieved by providing them with services.

A procedurally fair environment

Practitioners felt strongly that problem-solving courts should ensure that defendants’ feel fairly treated. This meant doing things like ensuring that defendants’ have a chance to speak during proceedings, adapting the layout of courtrooms, holding court reviews in more informal settings, and working on the way that people communicate in the courtroom such explaining what was going on in clear English and using respectful language.

Practically, practitioners felt constrained by the infrastructure and layout of existing court buildings, by existing procedures, by their colleague’s attachment to the formality of the courtroom, and a concern about media and public attitudes that might regard them as making things “easy” or “soft” on defendants. Nonetheless, practitioners offered up examples of working within these constraints. They said that they would find it helpful to have more training in procedural fairness if it was available, particularly for judges.

Accountability through judicial monitoring

The ongoing relationship between the defendant and a judge was recognised is a defining characteristic of a problem-solving court. The best way to achieve this is to have one or more dedicated problem-solving judges sitting who regularly in a dedicated problem-solving court hearing. This facilitates the regular and consistent reviews. They highlighted that effective reviews required the input of local agencies to ensure that judges have access to comprehensive and up-to-date information about offenders’ progress.

Although the legal framework in Scotland and Northern Ireland enables reviews in some contexts, developing this consistent relationship faces logistical barriers. The shortage of both sentences and space in some courts can make it difficult to schedule regular hearings. Participants noted that often the existence of problem-solving courts rested on judges using their own initiative and leadership. They also talked about the power of the evidence base around problem-solving to help judges and advocates make the case for change.


The stories which practitioners shared with us at this event were an important reminder of what problem-solving courts mean for the people who work in them. For court professionals who have dedicated their careers to responding to criminal behaviour, problem-solving represents a unique opportunity to be part of a long-term solution.

Participants offered powerful examples of how this passion to do better could build alliances, develop solutions and overcome barriers.

The projects who were took part had very different origins: some were initiated by central government, whilst others had their roots in local determination to do things better. But the unifying thread was the power of local leadership – and in particular commitment from of the judiciary – to create real change for offenders and communities.