Order in the courts: an academy for innovation in justice

By David Donaldson

Monday December 14, 2015

How do you evaluate customer satisfaction when the customers in question are criminals and the service is the judicial system?

That’s one of the questions being pondered by the new Sir Zelman Cowen Centre Courts and Tribunals Academy, which launched in October.

Though she hates to use the term, director Kathy Laster points out that customer feedback is an increasingly important part of business practice for the public sector. Thanks to the courts’ integrity role, “they haven’t been as responsive to those measures”, she says, “because do you ask a prisoner if they’re happy? No. But there must be ways to do it.”

Apart from educating court staff, the new academy will undertake research on issues of importance to the running of Australia’s courts, mostly at the request of legal institutions. How to evaluate client satisfaction will be one area of inquiry.

Measuring complexity will be another. As the court system becomes more clogged up and cases are taking longer to complete, it’s been asked whether the courts are becoming less efficient. The centre plans to come up with a means of divining the intricacy of cases, probably through economic modelling, which will not only help evaluate court productivity, but might become a useful management tool. As the centre’s associate director Carly Lloyd says, “courts have to innovate”.

“We know trial lengths are getting longer,” she told The Mandarin. “Matters are getting more complex as evidence becomes more complex. There’s more telephone intercept material and that sort of thing. At the end of the day I don’t think government’s just going to hand out 100 new judges to deal with the extra volume.”

“What this will do is encourage people to be reflective about their work environment …”

It’s not long until the first courses begin on March 7, 2016 and Laster and Lloyd are deep in curriculum development mode. The academy is planning to make courses available online, supplemented by intensive subjects, to bring its benefits to a national audience.

This will bring opportunities for “cross-fertilisation”, says Laster, as staff from different states, territories and the Commonwealth — and different courts within each jurisdiction — share experiences and thoughts.

Laster and Lloyd were very excited on the day The Mandarin came to visit. They were awaiting official confirmation they had secured international court management expert Professor Ingo Keilitz as a visiting scholar under a Fulbright senior specialists grant. Keilitz, the architect of the Global Measures of Court Performance, will conduct a masterclass in court and tribunal performance measurement at the Courts and Tribunals Academy.

The centre was born out of a dearth of professional development tailored to court staff, says Laster, who previously spent four years in charge of the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

“Courts have functioned as operational units. High volume, get the work done. What this will do is encourage people to be reflective about their work environment, which is what any graduate education tries to do,” she explained.

“It’s changing people’s mindset from being straight out service delivery to being informed social agents that can influence the shape of change.”

‘Finally’: an idea whose time had come

As the director of policy and strategy for the Victorian county court, Lloyd experienced first hand the lack of education opportunities specifically for court officers, which has meant they’ve traditionally been shoehorned into courses aimed at bureaucrats.

“I was sent to ANZSOG courses, a couple of other things along the way,” she said. “I almost had to translate concepts and adapt them to the needs of the court. So when Kathy first told me about this, I thought oh thank god, finally.”

There’s a growing awareness that court administration needs to become more streamlined. They’re also looking at trying to be more transparent and open to the community, Laster says.

To some extent the courts are playing catch-up. In Victoria, until the passing of the Court Services Act last year, courts were administered through the Department of Justice and Regulation. They did not have control of their own budgets, so never developed some of the capacity found in other public sector organisations.

“In Victoria, traditionally the courts have had very lean admin staff, the focus has always been on judges, hearing cases — bums on seats — and then a small selection of VPS2 or 3 staff,” said Lloyd. “There hasn’t traditionally been enough strategic grunt within the jurisdictions to do things like run projects and evaluate them properly.

“So the courts have either had to look externally, buy those services in, or try to do it with very little talent on the ground. That’s starting to change now. In a sense they’re playing catch-up, but only insofar as they’re empowered to do it for themselves now.”

Problems remain, however. At the time of our interview, the County Court had been more or less without internet “for weeks”, Lloyd reveals. “It operates so slowly I think the CEO bought the judges all iPads to try and use the 3G network,” she said. The Magistrates Court’s case management system still operates off a mainframe with green screens.

With administrative independence, the courts are now able to allocate resources towards dealing with some of their endemic IT problems. It helps that Court Services Victoria is now its own portfolio, so the courts can talk directly to Treasury, rather than being represented by the Department of Justice.

One of the benefits of an institution like the academy is that courts will be able to train up their own staff to run some of the technology projects that will be coming up over the next few years. They’ll be able to get much better outcomes if such tasks are taken on by someone “who’s bilingual, who speaks techie and speaks the needs of the business, rather than having the tech heads dictate the change”, thinks Lloyd.

“The courts are really interested in grabbing their eight-year-plus registry officer, upskilling them, and then having them lead those change projects within the courts,” she said. “That’s a much better model, and that’s what we’re trying to assist them with.”

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