Court Modernisation and Communications

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has announced ‘a perception survey to inform and improve how we communicate with court users’. This is presumably a commercially remunerated commission, the cost of which is to be added to the £30m already spent on external advice. So, it is different from the work on the HMCTS estates strategy undertaken by York University’s Professor Chalkley and published in the recent response to a consultation on that topic. He was ‘asked to provide an independent review’ but not offered any money: ‘I have undertaken this review Pro Bono’. At least, this allowed him to be critical – potentially a comms nightmare but dealt with by hiding him in Appendix C in the published report. It could also suggest the higher value the HMCTS puts on external advice on communication over substance. There are some immediate improvements that might be made – on which advice can be given as by Professor Chalkley – for free.

Personally, I admit to a low tolerance for hype. It sets my teeth on edge. This is a pretty major recurring problem in following HMCTS comms. Let me quote an example from a past post which illustrates the issue: ‘The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee headlined its analysis [of a critical report]: ’Little confidence sweeping courts reforms can be delivered’. Nothing daunted, HMCTS responded: ‘HMCTS agree that the Reform programme is ambitious and challenging but is pleased with the early progress that has been made’. This is communication by airbrush but it is too crude. The PAC was saying that the objectives were unachievable. If a criticism is made, you have to refute, not just obscure by rephrasing.

There is evidence from other sources that the HMCTS has been caught out in the business of message massage. We have the vexed example of hype in relation to video hearings. This is considered in the post above. But it also figures in recent evidence of the Association of District Judges to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee: 

When first announced with a proposed budget of £1bn to update the Court service it was welcomed with high levels of optimism albeit with a degree of caution. Judges were encouraged by the Senior Judiciary, who had been involved in early discussions, to take as a given that the revolutionary IT would be delivered and would work well. Regrettably the visible objective evidence points to the contrary. In March 2018 the much vaunted first virtual hearing in the Tax Tribunal had limited success due to excessive buffering and crashing. Despite this and the very small number of cases involved, this is still held out by HMCTS in public communications as one of the achievements of reform to date. A more objective assessment was carried out by the LSE. 

At the core of this comms point is substance. The court modernisation programme has goals which were highlighted by the National Audit Office in its critical report on performance last year: They are

  1. ‘£265m annual expenditure savings from the HMCTS change portfolio from 2023-24 onwards’;
  2. ‘5,000 planned reduction in the number of HMCTS full time equivalent staff by March 20203’; and
  3. ‘2.4m planned reduction in number of cases heard in physical courtrooms each year.’

You will note, as has been pointed out in previous posts, that there are no objectives for HMCTS in relation to access to justice. In government, as in business. If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. The Ministry of Justice responded to criticism of this absence: 

We will aim:

i. to have completed the scoping stage of this work [on defining access to justice objectives], … by the end of Spring 2019;

ii. to have commissioned any further research for the evaluation, and publish a call for relevant evidence from academics by the end of the Summer 2019, if required;

iii. on that basis, we would be aiming to complete an interim report by Summer 2021. There will also be regular updates throughout the evaluation, as findings become available.

iv. The intention would then be to continue to evaluate the programme at regular intervals as the reform programme is concluded.

So, the HMCTS/Ministry of Justice approach to access to justice objectives amounts to: ‘It’s complicated’. That did not stop HMCTS tweeting on 10th May that ‘Access to justice is at the heart of everything we do’. So it may be. Pity the HMCTS is some way off an operating definition of what it means. 

And meaning is a pretty important part of comms. It is spectacularly lacking in some of HMCTS’ communications. A recent blog illustrated the point and this commentary provides a reminder of its deficiencies: ‘Let us list the unexplained cliches – ‘waterfall delivery’, ‘journeys of our users’, ‘doing less but delivering more’; ‘“transformation”’ (interestingly used in quotes), transformation which ‘never really … ends’, ’‘Robotics Process Automation or RPA’, a ‘lean product team of three people’ (why is a team of three necessarily lean?). All of these might be acceptable with definition or explanation but are opaque without. There are just two potentially verifiable facts. A team of once 125 has been shrunk to 75. And the point of the piece – the result of whatever happened was that a casework team saved around 36 hours of day. But what did the MOJ team actually do? We don’t know. We are, however, told that generally they are pretty happy with what whatever it is …’

Let’s distill some lessons for HMCTS’ comms department from the above. This is particularly important because pressure is building up against court closures (against which there are increasing protests and rather interesting light shows as illustrated above); technological inadequacies; and an all too rapidly approaching end date for the programme. 

  1. Dont gild the lily. Court digitalisation is desirable but difficult, particularly for users in person. Don’t pretend otherwise.
  2. Link comms more to substance.
  3. Make sense and avoid gobbledygook.
  4. Hold an internal competition in the Ministry of Justice for the person who is the grumpiest about grammar (good test – can they unerringly spot a split infinitive?’); the most fanatically opposed to ‘newspeak’ (extra marks if they can quote the reference); and the most virulent about hype (test them about the presentation of AI). Appoint them as editor in chief and ensure no HMCTS comms goes out without their blessing.
  5. There is not much time left but apply this improved approach to comms with more attention to substance. Why will litigants or tribunal applicants in person not lose out in a process which is essentially aimed at the professional users of the courts? Let’s hear more about that.

Well, BMG Research, holder of the HMCTS remunerated comms study contract. Are we thinking on the same lines?

The illustrating photograph is used with permission from the Law Society Gazette.

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