Manchester has led the way on problem solving courts in the UK for more than a decade. Projects like Stockport Problem-Solving Court and Manchester Women’s Court have been important examples of what can be achieved when court work in partnership with other agencies to find long-term solutions to offending.
However, the climate in recent years has not been a friendly one for problem-solving. Probation restructuring, court reforms and the impact of austerity on support for vulnerable people have undermined the capacity of courts to offer people the help they need to turn their lives around.
Nonetheless, problem-solving practitioners and their strategic allies are determined to rebuild the approach. They see problem-solving as playing a crucial role in the city’s pioneering effort to develop more appropriate responses to women in the criminal justice system.
The history of problem-solving in Manchester starts with Salford Community Court. The project, which opened in 2006, was the first use of problem solving in a mainstream English court. It offered on-site advice and support, first to offenders from Eccles, and then across the whole of Salford. When Salford Magistrate’s Court closed in 2011, the community court project closed with it, but it left behind a legacy of practitioners with a keen interest in the approach.
Two further projects followed the Salford example: Stockport Problem-Solving Court which supports persistent offenders with multiple needs and Manchester Women’s Problem-Solving Court which focuses on female offenders with very high levels of needs. The two courts share a number of key features:
- Specialisation: both projects target vulnerable offenders as measured by the number of distinct needs (such as addiction, poor housing or mental health) they have. Needs are identified by a pre-sentencing assessment process conducted by probation officers as part of the pre-sentence-report. The courts are supported by specialist teams including dedicated legal advisors and probation officers and a panel of problem-solving magistrates.
- Collaborative intervention: work with problem-solving clients begins with a sentence planning meeting where they meet with representatives of probation, the local authority and voluntary sector services. The meeting establishes a package of support which will be provided to the offender over the duration of the sentence.
- Accountability through judicial monitoring: offenders return to court regularly across the course of the order to discuss their progress. The review hearings are designed to recognise offenders’ achievements and help them set goals for future progress as well as reinforcing the consequences if they don’t comply with their sentence plan.
- A procedurally fair court environment: the courts hold reviews in regularly scheduled specialised hearings which are adapted to provide a more appropriate environment for their target groups and to encourage rehabilitation. Stockport also uses the specialised hearings to sentence potential problem-solving clients, whereas Manchester sentences them in regular court, reserving the specialised hearing for reviews.
These two pathfinders established a template for problem-solving in Manchester which has influenced other projects across the UK.
A challenging environment
The past five years have been turbulent ones for the Manchester’s problem-solving courts, as they have been across the justice system in England and Wales. The projects have faced probation restructuring, court reforms and the impact of austerity, all of which have undermined their ability to provide the holistic-community based support which can help offenders move away from crime.
Both the Stockport and Manchester courts have their origins in partnerships between the courts service and the probation trust, with support from local authorities and the voluntary sector. However, the division of probation has placed a strain on the core working relationship, by creating barriers between court processes and the management of offenders. Almost all problem-solving clients are supervised by CRCs. However under the current probation structure, CRCs do not have a right of audience at court. Instead, the liaison between courts and offender managers is handled by court-based NPS probation officers who are not able to comment first hand on the offender’s progress or make commitments on behalf of the CRC. While courts and CRC staff have drawn on their long-history of co-working to maintain informal working relationships, stakeholders reflect that the change has made it more difficult for magistrates to engage with the support which problem-solving clients will receive in the community.
Changes to court functioning have also put pressure on problem-solving. The Transforming Summary Justice agenda has encouraged courts to resolve cases on the day rather than adjourning for a full standard delivery pre-sentence report (PSR). In fact, numbers of full PSRs have fallen by almost 90% across England and Wales since 2012*. Probation officers preparing fast delivery PSRs have significantly less time to spend with an offender to assess the range of their needs and explore the types of support which could form part of a sentences. This may result in clients who could potentially benefit from problem-solving support being missed because the full extent of their needs is not recognised. It also makes it significantly more difficult for courts to engage in meaningful pre-sentence planning, further removing them from the process of supervision.
Finally, public spending cuts have significantly reduced the availability of support for vulnerable people across Manchester. In order to maintain coverage, the combined authority has focussed primarily on streamlined models of early intervention, accompanied by more focussed support for particular groups such as vulnerable women. However, Manchester’s problem-solving courts have traditionally relied on broad, multi-agency partnerships to meet the range of needs presented by their clients, which are increasingly out of step with the new model for delivering service.
Whilst stakeholders recognise that these changes have made it more difficult for courts to deliver problem-solving interventions, they remain supportive of the model. Both Manchester and Stockport courts are continuing to hold problem-solving hearings, drawing on what community support they can to help offenders with complex needs move away from crime. They are also working to improve practice, implementing a single problem-solving panel to share expertise across the projects
A new vision for problem-solving
Despite the challenging context, the long history of problem-solving in Manchester has built a community of supporters with a determination to not only sustain the model, but to grow it. Problem-solving courts are seen as a having a key role to play in the city’s pioneering whole systems approach to women offenders, which has recently been endorsed by an influential Centre for Social Justice report, launched by Justice Minister Philip Lee.
The whole system approach works with statutory provision and the voluntary sector Women’s Alliance (which is co-commissioned with the Combined Authority) to support and divert women from further offending. This has delivered better reoffending rates compared to other metropolitan areas also also provided an important understanding of women’s complex needs.
Options are being considered to expand the problem-solving court element of the whole system approach, including a four week sentence-planning period at the start of a sentence. Clients would be brought back to court at the end of this period for a first review. This would give time for an in-depth assessment and the development of a coherent support package, while also allowing sentencers the opportunity to scrutinise a proposed sentence and plan ensure that clients are fully committed to it. Courts should be seen as a key part of the framework for supporting vulnerable women in the justice system. The upcoming MoJ strategy on women offenders offers a valuable opportunity to mobilise support for the model, but it’s unclear whether problem-solving is on the radar.
The Deputy Mayor, Baroness Beverley Hughes wants to go further, driving a wider problem solving approach to justice which incorporates family-centred and care-centred principles and aims to deliver greater involvement of the families and carers to support compliance and seeks to join-up with wider local provision, including health. In particular, a new problem-solving youth justice model is being developed which will include more regular supervision by magistrates; greater in-court engagement with the young person in familiar language; a focus on listening to the young person; a contract agreed with the young person; and the potential to develop new interventions such as community and asset-based approaches which support young people and their families.
The Deputy Mayor has an ambitious vision and is exploring the how the Greater Manchester Justice Devolution Deal could help to drive change. But it will take real commitment from the courts service and other statutory service providers to improve the way the justice system deals with the most vulnerable offenders.
Still, ambition must be in the air in Manchester. Asked about her long term goals for problem-solving, Lindsay Faulkner, legal advisor at Stockport and co-ordinator of the problem-solving panel is clear: “we want to make problem-solving available to people who need it, across the whole of Greater Manchester”. There’s a long way to go before that vision can be realised, but if probation and the courts service will back the model, then Manchester is well placed to succeed.
* Based on an analysis of data provided in in the Ministry of Justice offender management statistic quarterly releases from April 2013 – January 2018 in probation table 4.12.