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April 18, 2015

Lord Neuberger advocates that justice should be “the best we can do”

The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger gave a very human speech the other day to the Criminal Justice Alliance.  It is about how the justice system, and the judges within it, should serve the people. He warns of the dangers of group-think – that lawyers tend to talk law to each other – and reminds all that the justice system is a public service which must self evidently serve the public.  To this end, he encourages judges to remember how difficult the court process is to understand: “I think half the battle is won once a judge genuinely and fully appreciates the problems faced by non-lawyers when they have a part to play in court”.  He does not advocate any fundamental change to the system, but does advocate a change in culture, particularly given the rise in litigants in person and unrepresented defendants: ” judges, lawyers, and indeed court staff, have to go out of their way to ensure that the non-lawyers who appear in court, or are in other ways involved in the trial process, are not alienated or frightened”.  I think he is right, but I worry that no-one is regularly and systematically getting feedback from court users to check whether they are frightened, or whether they understand what is going on.  Inside Crown Court, an excellent new book, suggests that many defendants are disconnected from the court process and do not understand much of what goes on.  This is good evidence, but more needs to be gathered and used to help judges communicate better.  Without getting feedback, it is very hard for anyone to know how their actions are perceived and to adapt.  Magistrates are supposed to give feedback to each other in a “post court review”.  But this is often missed and, even then, the bench can only guess at the impact of their behaviour on court users.