Tuesday, February 3, 2015

At the Coalface


I'm in London at the moment, attending "Better Courts," a conference convened by the Centre for Justice Innovation and the new economics foundation.  It has been a well-organized and well-attended gathering -- several latecomers were actually denied entry in deference to Health and Safety regulations.

The principal takeaway for me so far (there is still another day to go) has been the sense that there is interesting, innovative work taking place on the ground (or "at the coalface" if you prefer) in the justice system in the UK.  This is one of the central arguments animating the Centre for Justice Innovation, which I chair.  At the Better Courts conference, we heard from magistrates in North London and Plymouth about their efforts to link low-level offenders to community-based social service providers.  We heard about family drug and alcohol courts that are attempting to fashion a new judicial approach to addiction. And we heard about efforts to rethink the court experience on behalf of victims and juveniles.  Phil Bowen of the Centre for Justice Innovation (pictured above) argued that the local magistracy could be a center of "practitioner-led innovation" in the UK.

The conference wasn't all seashells and balloons as the old basketball coach Al McGuire used to say.  The speakers acknowledged a number of significant obstacles to court reform in the UK, including funding limitations, a conservative legal culture, and the seeming disinterest of many national-level decision makers.  But in general, there was a spirit of hope and optimism and camaraderie among the speakers and the attendees.  It was heartening to be among so many government officials, academics and non-governmental organizations that are committed to the long, difficult work of changing the justice system.

It was also good to observe another significant milestone in the development of the Centre for Justice Innovation, from a subsidiary of the Center for Court Innovation to a full-fledged, locally-driven charity.  From my perspective, the Centre no longer feels dependent upon the reputation or expertise of the Center in New York -- it has its own credibility and its own agenda.  But the underlying values are consistent with what we are doing in the US.  While the delegates, vocabulary, and program models featured at the Better Courts conference are different from a gathering that we might convene in New York, if you take a step back, the approach is the same as the Center for Court Innovation's -- a cross-sector convening that encourages local innovation and that frames conversation in practical and non-ideological terms.