Are flexible and virtual courts a good idea? No one yet has a clue. Not the ministers who in the white paper Swift and Sure Justice moaned about ‘a cultural tolerance of delay’, nor lawyers who fear the consequences for their businesses.
What we do have is a chance to find out. So long as the courts service has the nerve to set up its 48 criminal justice service pilots in a fashion that produces hard evidence, not just a prop for an already established policy.
Such a mechanism exists. It’s called the randomised controlled trial. You apply a new intervention to groups of the population selected at random and measure the outcome against a control group given no intervention, or merely a sugar pill placebo.
This is the norm in the medical world. A brilliant paper published earlier this year by the Cabinet Office proposes its use in public policy. Randomised trials have already proven their worth in evaluating text message reminders to pay fines (they work) and the ‘Scared Straight’ programme of confronting young offenders with prison life (it doesn’t).
Ministers have already hinted that the flexible courts pilots will be conducted this way. Let’s see that carried through.
Let’s make sure, by publishing up-front the criteria by which success will be measured. And remember that, public policy, a controlled trial that shows no effect or a harmful effect from the new policy is just as valuable as one that shows a benefit. The quid pro quo is that everyone, especially lawyers, gives the pilots a fair run for their money.
Of course resistance is natural. When clinical trials were first introduced in medicine, they were strongly resisted by some clinicians, who believed that their personal expert judgement was sufficient to decide whether a treatment was effective.
We're all prone to this. I’ll happily confess to finding flexible courts quite a good idea, but that's based on personal experience of being a recent victim of crime and of working decades in a sector where weekend and overnight duty is the norm. But anecdote and prejudice should not steer public policy. Let’s have the evidence.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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