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October 27, 2018

“I could see they believed me” – the importance of feeling listened to in court

I feel overwhelmed with a cornucopia of information. I regularly submit FOIs to the courts service (HMCTS) and the Ministry of Justice to unearth unpublished reports and data. I saw a report earlier in the year, on peoples’ experience of the courts. Only a summary was published, so I asked for the underlying data and, lo and behold, three months later, I have everything I wanted!

The research was commissioned by HMCTS and is about “customers'” experience of the courts and tribunals. It looked at all jurisdictions and tried to discern what factors influenced good and bad experiences. It included those who interacted with HMCTS exclusively online or on the phone.

Before getting in to the detail, I’m intrigued by the selection of respondents. Every single type of court user is included except criminal defendants and jurors, so the criminal court findings are entirely based on victims and witnesses. I can’t really understand this. Defendants have good and bad experiences of courts too. Many are acquitted. So a precious opportunity to find out what defendants and jurors think appears to have been lost.

Perhaps more bewildering is the lack of a question on the ethnicity of respondents. There are indications from other research that those from ethnic minority communities lack trust in the criminal justice system. Maybe BAME court users have different views of the court experience? Again a missed opportunity to find out.

The research focuses on what factors affect people’s “satisfaction” with the court experience. The top line is pretty positive: 54% of respondents rated their encounter as ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’, 60%  felt listened to by the courts system, 63% agreed the information they received was good enough, and 77% were kept well informed about what was happening while they were in court. But digging down into the data reveals some interesting and/or concerning findings.

  1. People get most of their information on courts from television programmes – this is a way more important source than any other, with friends and family and Citizens Advice the next most important.
  2. A third of the general population admit they know nothing at all about the courts and tribunals process.
  3. Being listened to as part of the court/tribunal process is more important than the outcome.
  4. Most customers thought the information they received about the court process was good enough, but a quarter could not recall receiving any information at all about the court process from HMCTS.

Though three quarters of customers rated the physical environment of courts and tribunals good (!), they were particularly critical of the waiting areas – they didn’t want to wait for a long time in the same room as the opposing party

“I sat there for a while. I hoped he’d [my solicitor] be there before me but he wasn’t…my partner was already there with his solicitor…it was a horrible experience” (Family, London, Applicant)

Improvements suggested were to have separate waiting rooms and/or distractions like TV or music and for vending machines to be on hand and working.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the survey is the key driver of having a good court experience – being listened to. There were two dimensions to this

  1. HMCTS users literally feeling they were listened to eg a customer calls a contact centre but is perhaps talked over, not understood; or another person doesn’t get the result they wanted from HMCTS staff when at court :“There were not always people available. You struggled to find someone in there.”
  2. People feeling that their voice hasn’t had any influence in the process. In one interview a respondent felt that she was ignored in the courtroom, and by HMCTS staff on the phone and on the day, because she was a single black woman. She felt profoundly ignored. Or one person complained about their court hearing: “The questions didn’t give me a chance to explain the circumstances or the mitigating factors.”

As the report points out, HMCTS and its staff are only partly responsible for whether people feel their voice has any influence on the process. Judges and magistrates also have a huge influence on this. My blog last week called for judges to get better feedback. That being “being listened to” is the most important aspect of the court experience suggests we need to do some more research – on what judicial remarks and behaviour most contribute to customers feeling that their voice is heard.  And this learning should then be incorporated into judicial training and development. The judiciary may fear that this would compromise their independence, but as long as the research was anonymised, I can’t see it would.