We all agree that our courts should try to reduce crime. But, in many cases, the reasons that people commit crimes are complex, entrenched and difficult to tackle. Poverty, homelessness, addiction and a breakdown of trust in the law and wider society all contribute to offending. These are problems which cannot be solved by punishment alone.
That’s why, over the last two years, the Centre for Justice Innovation and NEF have been collaborating on Better Courts, a joint project to support courts to find new ways to tackle crime and improve their service to communities. From simple ideas like making sure that defendants know which courtroom they need to be in, to new ways of supervising drug users to make sure they are engaging with treatment, Better Courts is about local courts responding to local needs.
Better Courts is a celebration of innovative local courts, but it’s also a challenge to the courts service to do more. And that’s why we were excited when the most senior judge in England and Wales, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, agreed to speak at an event on Better Courts, which we co-hosted with the Criminal Justice Alliance.
We were gratified that Lord Thomas not only backed our call for innovation, and that he saw NEF and CJI as having an important role to play in that process:
“The fiscal circumstances of our country mean that innovation and change are not merely an option but they are a necessity. I therefore welcome the opportunity of discussing the issues that are raised... I wish to encourage, to the greatest extent I can, innovative thinking.
Lord Thomas was keen to impress the audience that while the financial imperative was strong, there were other imperatives to for innovation. He recognised, as we do in Better Courts, that another compelling motive for innovation was a frustration, and acknowledgment, that our lower courts do not always have the types of sentences on offer to tackle the root causes of low level offending:
A judge or magistrate will always seek to do justice and, in a particular area, he may feel that what is on offer is not working. And in the past we’ve seen this not so much in low-level offending, but in other areas, where judges have taken initiatives and have put forward ideas.”
That said, he also recognised the tension between local innovation and the need for consistency of sentencing. He clearly saw a space for new and creative thinking and practice but was also keen to stress the need for sound evidence based proposals and rigourous evaluation of new approaches:
“Experience, I think, shows two things: first, we must encourage that kind of innovation. But as we all live in a country where we should be governed by the same system of justice, and you should not have what happens in one area being different to another, unless there was a good objective reason for it." As he said,
One does need to have some means of knowing what is happening locally; deciding objectively whether or not it is worthwhile; if it is good practice, to spread it; if it is bad practice, to stop it...” Lord Thomas
Over the coming months, we will be working with Lord Thomas and others to find out more about what good practice in courts looks like, and how to spread it.
You can read the full transcript of Lord Thomas’s remarks here.