The various pilots being run in the courts to test digital ways of working are already showing very positive signs, the Lord Chief Justice has revealed.
But, speaking to Association of District Judges annual conference, Lord Burnett also acknowledged “the very real difficulties” its members faced.
Technology was one way to improve judges’ working lives and Lord Burnett highlighted the online civil money claims project, which launched just before Easter.
“It was used 700 times in the first week and on Maundy Thursday a claim was lodged on-line at 14.02 and had been paid by 16.00. That is the sort of service we should be providing to the public.”
He added that, since the online divorce pilot started in July last year, around 1,500 people have requested links to it.
“In the paper-based world, an uncontested divorce required an applicant to fill out a form and file it with the court and, in some cases, to be checked by a judge; 40% of those forms were rejected because they had not been completed properly.
“The new online process takes applicants 25 minutes to complete, compared to an hour for the paper forms. And because the online form is well designed, all but eliminating the scope for errors, the rejection rate has fallen to 0.5%.
“This has the potential to save significant amounts of HMCTS staff and judicial time.”
This was in the context of district judges facing an ever-increasing workload, Lord Burnett said.
“Family law cases for example have seen double digit percentage increases year after year. The number of judges has not. And nor of course has pay.
“As your workload has grown, the number of staff supporting you has shrunk. They and you are grappling with outdated paper based systems. We know that many of our buildings are in a poor state.”
This made it “all the more remarkable” that district judges continued to meet very high standards, he continued.
“I do not take that dedication for granted, and know that we need to tackle the problems. At the heart of many of the things that have led to an attrition of judicial morale are questions of resources.
“For many things – pay and pensions, investment in the estate – we depend on government, and on those I shall continue to press our cause.
“At the same time, I am determined to take action where it is within our gift to make things better. We have made a start.”
Lord Burnett said every salaried judge would have “a career discussion with a leadership judge to talk about balance of work, sitting arrangements, hopes for the future and any concerns”.
He continued: “Equally, we are looking to devise better means for you to work across jurisdictions. Greater variety of work, greater opportunities to train, learn and develop your skills and – for those who want to seek further appointments – a stronger basis from which to do so.
“We are also starting to replenish the number of fee-paid judges. There has been a slow-down in recruitment of fee paid judges, including deputy district judges, for many years.”
The Lord Chief went on to look at modernisation that would aid district judges, including the switch to digital working and also developing a consistent approach to the use of case officers.
“Acting under statutory authorisation, sometimes wrongly described as delegation, they are exercising relatively routine, straightforward, judicial functions. We are looking to expand the scope of work that can be done under such authorisation.
“Importantly, although legislation is needed to achieve that end, authorisation is a judicial matter, ultimately under rules of court or practice directions over which the judiciary will have control.”
In addition to efficiency, this move would ensure that district judges spend time on “the more satisfying judicial work, with work that properly needs your skills and experience”.