Part 2: Helping to manage court workloads

Ministry of Justice: Supporting the management of court workloads.

In this Part, we set out our findings about the Ministry's:

We expected the Ministry to:

  • have systems, processes, and facilities to help manage court workloads;
  • have clear and appropriate performance standards and to monitor progress against these;
  • devise and put in place systems and processes to continuously improve support for the management of court workloads; and
  • train and support the workforce required to help manage court workloads.

Our overall findings

Ministry staff have a standard system and processes to help manage court cases. There was frequent communication between court staff and court participants in the courts we visited. Frequent communication is important because it helps keep court participants informed of changes or events that could have an effect on court workloads.

The Ministry collects a wide range of information to monitor court workloads and it makes appropriate use of the information it collects. Collecting information on court performance is important because it helps the Ministry to understand what has been happening in the courts. This understanding supports planning for the future. The Ministry conducts reviews of individual courts every 24 to 30 months. These reviews provide valuable information for the Ministry and the judiciary. In our view, there is an opportunity for the Ministry to use these court reviews to improve the way information about better practice is identified then shared with all the courts.

Following on from recommendations made in a 2004 Baseline Review, the Ministry has put increased effort into its training (including customer service skills) and support materials (including reference material and guidelines for court staff). This work is ongoing; the Ministry continues to develop and refine these training and support materials, and we would expect this work to continue.

Systems and processes to support the management of court workloads

The Ministry has suitable systems and processes in place to support the management of court workloads. There are small differences in how staff in each court operate, which recognise local circumstances and challenges. The Ministry could make sure that local innovations were shared with other courts.

The New Zealand court system operates within legal frameworks that provide a foundation upon which the courts function. The Ministry also has training and support materials (see paragraphs 2.29–2.36). These provide a general framework for staff to work within.

The main computing system used by court staff to help manage court cases is called the Case Management System (the CMS). The CMS tracks details of a case and its progress through the court system. The Ministry also uses the CMS to get information used in monitoring the performance of the courts.

The Ministry can change some types of information that can be collected from the CMS, and it can also update existing reports or create new reports using information from the CMS.

Court staff manage the paper documents associated with a case separately from the CMS. Paper records serve as the official court record. There are processes in place to ensure that information in the CMS and paper files is accurate.

Ministry-distributed circulars enable staff to keep track of any law changes and changes that may affect their work practice. This allows the Ministry to control the timing of any process changes.

There are some small differences in how court staff in each court operate. These differences reflect differences in judicial procedure, workloads, the physical layout of courts, and pilot projects that are often carried out locally. In our view, these differences are appropriate; they create an environment conducive to innovation and help courts respond more effectively to local challenges. However, it is important that the Ministry records and uses this local innovation as a tool for continuous improvement by sharing it with all the courts. (We discuss sharing of better practice further in paragraphs 2.23–2.27.)

Overall, the Ministry has suitable systems and processes in place to support the management of court workloads. Ministry staff have a standardised training and support framework, they use a standardised system to manage court cases, and the Ministry has a process in place to provide assurance that computer and paper records are accurate.

Interacting with court participants

The Ministry frequently interacts with court participants, which supports efficient court operations.

Good communication between court participants encourages co-operation, which helps the court process work better. For example, while visiting a court, we were told about a Police plan to serve a large number of warrants that night. Because the court had been informed of this, court staff were able to better prepare for the influx of cases the next day.

Court staff we interviewed noted the importance of good communication with court participants and told us that they regularly meet with them. There is also considerable informal contact in the course of day-to-day duties between court staff, the Police Prosecution Service, Crown prosecutors, the Department of Corrections, and lawyers.

We did not speak to local representatives of all court participants, but we did talk to senior members of the judiciary, the Department of Corrections, Crown Law, the Legal Services Agency, the Law Society, the Police, and the Police Prosecution Service. Those discussions, and our own observations and discussions with court staff, satisfied us that there is frequent communication between court staff and other court participants in the courts we visited.

The Ministry is well aware of the importance of good ongoing communication with court participants. Effective communication between the Ministry and other court participants leads to better workload management.

More formally, the Ministry's court reviews (see paragraphs 2.23–2.27) include the relationship between its staff and other court participants.

Court performance indicators

The Ministry regularly monitors how well courts are functioning, using a good range of performance indicators.

The Ministry's national office produces regular management reports that provide it with an overview of how the courts are functioning nationally and regionally. The reports summarise the number of new cases, the number of cases disposed of (by the type of court and type of proceeding), and provide a series of indicators about the age of cases. The Ministry calculates clearance rates at a national and individual court level. Clearance rates show whether cases are coming in faster than they are being cleared. Performance statistics for individual courts are also available on the Ministry's intranet, which court staff can access.

The Ministry records court performance indicators in regular management reports, and it also provides this information to other members of the justice sector. Court performance indicators are used during inter-agency discussions about the performance of the courts. Court performance information is used in discussions about managing court workloads that the Ministry has with the justice sector, Ministers, and select committees.

When performance indicators show a court is under pressure, there are few short-term options available for addressing that pressure, short of rostering more judges in that court. Although rostering may alleviate pressure in one court or jurisdiction, removing a judge from another area may create additional pressure in that court or jurisdiction.

Because there are very few short-term options available for alleviating workload pressure, court performance information is important in the Ministry's planning process. Performance information gives the Ministry valuable insight into what has been happening in the courts, and helps the Ministry to determine what other options might be effective.

Overall, our view is that the Ministry collects a wide range of information that supports the monitoring of court workloads. Also, the Ministry makes appropriate use of the information it collects.

Court reviews

The Ministry's court reviews provide valuable information about the performance of individual courts. There is an opportunity for using court reviews to improve the way information about better practice is identified then shared with all courts.

District Court reviews were first piloted in 2005 in response to the 2004 Baseline Review recommendation "that the Ministry establish a small team of people who will become both assessors and coaches of performance improvement at a local level."8

The court review team from the Ministry's national office reviews individual courts every 24 to 30 months. Court reviews look at four main areas: staffing, communication with court participants, business processes, and an additional "other" category that might be used for issues such as security or facilities. The reviews enable the Ministry and courts to assess how a court is performing, and also identify areas where improvements can be made.

Court managers we interviewed told us they found the reviews useful. We, too, consider them useful, because they provide an opportunity to bring a different perspective about how a court is operating. They can also help the Ministry get a clearer view of what is occurring throughout all the courts in the country.

The Ministry's court review team has a follow-up process to monitor how courts adopt recommendations made by the review team. The Ministry's regional managers are also involved in monitoring and following up the review recommendations.

We have already highlighted the importance of learning from regional innovation and sharing this innovation throughout all the courts. Regional and national forums provide an opportunity for some court staff to share better practice. However, there is an opportunity for the Ministry to do more to identify and, particularly, to share, information about better practice. For example, some staff we spoke with told us they had created their own solutions to areas that court reviews identified for improvement, rather than having had solutions suggested to them by the court review team. Additionally, the local differences we noted in paragraph 2.11 could be better recorded and disseminated.

We recommend that the Ministry of Justice place greater emphasis on collecting and sharing information about better practice in managing court workloads – throughout all courts – as part of its court review process and as part of its wider court-related activities.

The Ministry has told us it supports this recommendation and is working through the actions it can take to address the recommendation.

Training and support materials

Since the 2004 Baseline Review, the Ministry has been actively producing training and support materials for staff. The materials are proving useful for staff. We expect the Ministry to continue developing resources, while also developing its programme for assessing the effectiveness of the training and support materials.

A Baseline Review of the Ministry was conducted in 2004 after the merger of the Department of Courts and the Ministry. This resulted in increased government funding and provided guidance to the Ministry about areas it could improve. Specific to court workloads, the Baseline Review identified a lack of training and development for court staff, and a lack of performance support tools for staff.

The Ministry responded to these concerns by creating a professional development team and by producing training and performance support resources. Performance support tools included process guidelines and reference materials for court staff to help them do their job.

The professional development team used findings from a series of court visits to identify training needs. The team then produced, and continues to create, new training and support tools for court staff.

Training and support materials have focused on: induction, on-the-job support tools, registrars' skills, and customer service skills. Training is usually internal and on the job, with some training done online. Managers in individual courts are responsible for ensuring that their staff are provided with any necessary training.

The Ministry has two approaches to monitoring the effectiveness of its training:

  • instructor-led training workshops that include evaluation sheets to gauge the usefulness of training; and
  • a newly introduced system that enables managers to confirm that staff can show skills learned in training.

In general, staff we spoke with said they found training materials helpful. They gave positive comments about their training and the performance support tools they use. We endorse the Ministry's continuing efforts to create training and support materials, as well as to devise approaches to monitoring the effectiveness of its training.

Training and support are important, as well-trained staff help the Ministry support court operations in an effective and efficient way. In the future, there may be significant changes to how court staff operate (see the initiatives described in Figure 3). So, it is important that the Ministry has a high-quality training and support programme in place to enable Ministry staff to quickly adopt changes.

Based on what staff told us, we consider that the materials for staff training and support the Ministry has so far produced in response to the Baseline Review are useful. We expect the Ministry to continue to improve its training and support materials, while also completing its work to monitor the effectiveness of the training its staff get.

Monitoring how courtrooms are used

The Ministry is doing more monitoring of how courtrooms are used.

Courtroom use has been monitored in the Ministry's northern (Auckland) region since July 2008 as part of the Ministry's Auckland Service Delivery Programme. In May 2009, an internal Ministry memorandum recommended that large courts nationwide should measure actual courtroom use and record the reasons courtrooms were not being used in a systematic way. The Ministry has adopted the memorandum's recommendations, and planned to collect information about the use of large courtrooms from September 2009.

Given the cost of building new courts, it is important that the Ministry understands how existing courtrooms are used. This will help the Ministry to provide assurance that courtrooms are being used effectively and efficiently. Having good information about courtroom use will also allow the Ministry to create a compelling business case when additional courtrooms are required.

8: See paragraph 2.29 for more information about the 2004 Baseline Review.

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