HMCTS has advised PCS that it is considering launching the first early adopter of the Common Platform single-case management system in the magistrates’ and crown courts in Derbyshire in early September.
It has invited PCS to make representations in terms of the “Go / No Go” decision. Read a summary of the key issues we raised in our response on 29 July.
PCS maintains that as a matter of principle when we are still at the start of a period of Covid-19 recovery and when the risks from a second wave widely predicted on scientific evidence remain unaddressed, it is inappropriate to start the roll-out of a product that not only changes significantly how our members and stakeholders work but has the potential to remove an unprecedented number of administrative roles.
We have formally requested the roll-out is paused and remains paused until the recovery has ended and we are satisfied all of the issues we have raised have been addressed. Our members have had to and are continuing to adapt to new ways of working; many of which involve IT and many of which due to issues of one kind or another are causing members significant amounts of work related stress. We have seen no evidence as to how introducing early adopters at this stage would support the recovery. Feedback from members would suggest it is likely to have the very opposite effect.
The timing of the roll-out aside, in relation to the recovery we have previously raised concerns about HMCTS’s approach to early adopters and asked that the employer learns some lessons from how it rolled out digital mark-up. While repeatedly being told that lessons are being learnt, we regrettably see little by way of tangible evidence.
HMCTS has indicated that it has put in place a number of measures to support our members. They don’t go anywhere near far enough. We see no recognition of the stressful circumstances in which our members are working let alone to reduce or remove them.
Impact on HMCTS member users
- Training, preparation and support
While acknowledging the restrictions in relation to training that the need to socially distance requires, providing a virtual learning platform only does not reflect the different learning needs and styles of members, many of whom find virtual learning in relation to a digital process a barrier rather than an aid. PCS do not accept the learning platform in its current format is remotely fit for purpose and query how members can therefore be prepared for a roll out starting in September. One member has described the learning platform as “shockingly bad even by DMU standards”.
- Volumes of work
The reassurance provided in relation to low volumes of work is negligible when we consider that it is volume of work that is subject to consideration not type of work. There is a huge difference between a case, for example, where there is one allegation of drink driving that following a guilty plea leads to a fine and ancillary orders, and a case where there are mixed pleas to multiple offences arising out of different circumstances where a defendant is conditionally bailed to different dates. They both represent one case.
We have previously seen the negative impact on those in the magistrates’ court who work reduced hours or undertake a crime / family split and the difficulties that arise when making decisions about increasing volumes. There is nothing in what we have been told that provides any assurance that their needs will be addressed. All too often the need to cover a court is the overriding factor for those allocating rosters.
Members have reported that the system has an in-built mechanism whereby any “corrections” required for any reason, be it oversight through pressure of work, to a change of decision by the judiciary, require peer or manager approval to be sought for that correction. It is wholly inappropriate for all users to see each others “corrections” but also those of their managers, not to mention members being expected to address the needs of others whilst also seeking to address their own needs. This cannot be justified on governance grounds.
We do not accept that a default position, where a result is saved and can be returned to at the end of a session, is sufficient to address the risk of work-related stress. Aside from the fact it does not address the issue in relation to urgent results, it is likely to lead to members getting insufficient breaks from screens and keeping up by resulting when they should be breaking for lunch or after work.
Members are fearful that there is no alternative available to them if they feel overwhelmed in the court room. The note taking function lacks the promised intuitiveness. It appears that intuition is based on the fundamentally flawed LIBRA system – common and basic abbreviations such as UCB (unconditional bail) LE (licence endorsed) just to give two examples are not recognised. Legal advisers, court associates and court clerks do not speak in LIBRA.
There is no consideration of the position in a magistrates’ court when the lay judiciary are sitting. Legal advisers have duties to advise on law, evidence, practice and procedure, to assist the unrepresented and to ensure that all who appear have a fair trial. In the last survey conducted by HMCTS where results have been made known more than 80% of those who responded indicated that a move to digital working using DMU had impacted on their ability to give legal advice. We see no safeguards that seek to address this.
PCS maintains all of the above must be addressed and in consultation with us before any decision to proceed is made.
Method of early adopter roll-out
While recognising the logic of pairing magistrates’ courts with “receiving” crown courts PCS is concerned at the speed at which HMCTS proposes to move. In previous circumstances where the number of users has increased, it has proved problematic with the system being unable to cope. What is perceived as constant changes and updates, as different problems are identified and rectified often leading to other issues are stressful for our members.
Our legal adviser, court associate members and court clerk members who will be directly impacted by the Common Platform not just in the courts under consideration as early adopters but around the country are fatigued. Members talk of “meltdown” and “being on their knees”. Many are exhibiting the physical, emotional, behavioural and psychological symptoms of work related stress and are genuinely concerned the Common Platform will break them.
HMCTS has also shared a draft Common Platform evaluation pack with us. We have analysed and responded. PCS is unclear as to the purpose of the evaluation and what HMCTS is seeking to demonstrate. We cannot tell what success or indeed failure looks like, how HMCTS is seeking to measure this and how either would be addressed. HMCTS does not appear to be evaluating
- If the requirements of the business case including the costs benefit analysis is met
- if it improves the quality and timeliness of justice that is delivered.
- if meets the needs of users, or indeed recognise that different users including within HMCTS will have different needs.
- If it aids the recovery
- The impact of rolling in far from usual working conditions with the requirements to social distancing impacting significantly on the number of cases that can be heard
Rather than looking at whether the Common Platform adds value both in a qualitative and quantitative sense and therefore should be proceeded with, the draft evaluation appears to be little more than a review of process and communications.
While we welcome that HMCTS has indicated it will share a copy of the evaluation report towards the end of the early adopter period, allowing time for formal feedback, the fact that HMCTS indicates that this will be “prior to national rollout” would seem to support our contention that this is not an evaluation – namely a systematic determination of the common platform’s merit, worth and significance governed by a set of objective standards, but at best a lessons learned exercise.
The overwhelming majority of the measures set out do not reflect the SMART criteria and are deeply subjective. We are unclear how for example a measure that “there is a steady drum beat of communications published as appropriate” is measurable and are deeply concerned that HMCTS believe the vociferous advocacy of a cause is an appropriate thing to do let alone to measure. Measures such as “handoffs do not cause unnecessary delay” are suggestive not of a desire to improve but a recognition that there will be negative impacts requiring containment.
There is no independence to the evaluation. Evaluation is to be undertaken by those who have their professional reputation or future tied up with the project’s success or otherwise. PCS maintains there must be an independent evaluation and a mechanism to ensure that significant potential for bias from those who are invested in the project is countered. Members are already reporting that the Common Platform team who should be helping and supporting them are dismissive of their concerns. Product development they have undertaken has still not been taken on board. PCS is conscious that this was the experience of our members in probate and had a significant negative impact on our members stress levels and left them demoralised.
PCS remains unclear as to proposed timescales for early adopters, how it will be determined to bring further early adopters on board and how long the early adopter period is intended to last. These are all areas where we believe significant consultation is required.
Protecting members’ and advice to members
We do not know whether HMCTS will listen to what PCS and others are saying. We do know that our members In Derbyshire, other proposed local adopters and around the country are fearful of the introduction of the platform generally but particularly at the current time. It is our contention that the health, safety and welfare of our members must be a paramount consideration in the decision-making process throughout and that this process like any other must be risk assessed for the hazard of work related stress. Read our advice and guidance on work-related stress.