Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher reflects on the forthcoming Spending Review and its impact on the administration of justice

On 8 July in his Budget Statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, set out the Government’s plans for running a budget surplus for the first time in almost twenty years in 2019–20.

The Spending Review, to be published on 25 November, will set out how the Government intends to invest in priority public services and deliver a further £20bn in savings to eliminate the national deficit.

Over the next four years £12bn savings are being sought from welfare and £5bn from addressing avoidance, evasion and imbalances in the tax system in order to deliver half of the required savings. Other savings and cuts are being sought across Whitehall but spending on the NHS, schools, defence and international development will be protected, which is why such large savings, coming on top of those obtained in the last Parliament, are required in other areas.

The Chief Secretary, Greg Hands, wrote to Government departments in July asking them to draw up plans to deliver the required consolidation. Departments were asked to model two scenarios of 25% and 40% of savings within their resource budgets by 2019–20 in real terms. These are the same reductions requested ahead of the Coalition Government’s Spending Review of 2010.

In addition to achieving greater efficiencies and obtaining best value for money for taxpayers in all areas of public spending, departments have been asked to identify, for the first time, how they will help to achieve the Government’s target of reducing the size of the public sector estate (estimated to be worth £300bn). This is to release public sector land for at least 150,000 homes by 2020, by accelerating existing plans for disposals.

Seasoned Westminster watchers will say that initial pitching from the Treasury on the scale of cuts that departments need to find should be regarded as aspirational. Even so, to achieve savings approaching the scale being considered, and deliver more with less, involves some bold thinking about the size and shape of the state accompanied by strategic decisions about where to focus resources, rather than salami slicing.

What are the signs of radical thinking in the justice sector to address the Conservatives’ drive for budget responsibility? This had been initially accepted by the Opposition under its new management but was subsequently jettisoned by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, to the consternation of many of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Perhaps Michael Gove’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, which focused mainly on penal reform, had one eye on the development potential of old Victorian prisons occupying prime site locations, or possibly on the significant costs of maintaining a third of courts which are empty more than 50% of the time. The Ministry of Justice’s proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales, and integrate or merge another 31, are clearly designed to reduce the £500m annual cost of the courts estate managed by HMCTS, covering 460 courts and tribunal hearing centres.

The need to obtain significant cost savings in the justice budget has plainly been an important driver of the reforms recommended in Sir Brian Leveson’s report into Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings, but even more radical changes are under consideration. The introduction of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) through an Online Court, which has been examined in a Civil Justice Council Report, could reduce the need for professional legal intervention, not just in the civil arena but also in family disputes and many types of tribunal cases. As the Lord Chief Justice observed in his speech to the Legal Research Foundation in September, “the justice system needs to adapt to make sure that people can still access it without lawyers by a process designed to work without lawyers”.

Will this kind of cost-conscious, technology-enabled approach be reflected in the work of the Civil Courts Structure Review led by Lord Justice Briggs? The review has been examining the boundaries between the Civil Courts and the Family Court, the Tribunals Service and private providers of civil dispute resolution services. Its interim report, to be delivered by the end of next month, is expected to make recommendations for the deployment of judges and “delegated judicial officers” to particular classes of case, amongst other matters, which are plainly designed to address the Government’s drive to secure access to justice at much lower cost in many cases. Will this approach embed a two-tier system of justice, resulting in a “Litigants in Person Court” for some (the growing majority of litigants) and another court for those in the fortunate position to be able to afford professional representation? Either way the challenge for the Bar is to be engaged in a debate about devising alternative, affordable forms of legal representation.

In the run up to publication of the results of the Government’s Spending Review, reports have been circulating that under current cuts which have been submitted to the Treasury, Government spending will rise in real terms. The overall rise is the result of the Conservatives’ commitment to NATO to maintain the defence budget at 2% of GDP as well as the ring-fence around the NHS, overseas development aid (to which a commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP has been made) and some spending on education. The Home Secretary is also understood to have dug in her heels about making proposals for substantial cuts in the Home Office budget.

Against the background of George Osborne’s plans to invest in infrastructure and David Cameron’s desire to do more to help the poorest (as reflected in his One Nation Leader’s speech to the Conservative faithful in Manchester), the outturn at the end of the month does not bode well for many departments.

It is difficult to see how Michael Gove can achieve further significant savings in the MoJ’s budget other than by tackling spending on prisons, through a radical change in rehabilitation measures. The “biggest failure of all” in the criminal justice system, Gove concluded in his party conference speech, was the failure of imprisonment. If, as some estimate, the annual cost of a single prisoner is more than £60,000, every thousand fewer prisoners in England and Wales will deliver a saving of £60m. Add to that the savings from fewer buildings and staff that would accompany a planned and sustained reduction in the size of the prison population and the overall savings start to stack up. As an alternative to the Conservatives’ hang ‘em and flog ‘em approach, Michael Gove’s approach could herald a significant development in penal reform, when resourcing the core functions of the state is under such pressure.


The death, on 9 October, of Geoffrey Howe, a week after the death of another former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, evoked memories of a different era of politics. Behind his unassuming demeanour was a steely determination. Howe was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1952 and, after practising on the Wales and Chester Circuit, he became Solicitor General in 1970. It fell to Geoffrey Howe to develop and implement many of Margaret Thatcher’s economic and fiscal reforms. The two eventually tired of each other, Sir Geoffrey’s deadpan but deadly resignation speech leading to the Prime Minister’s fall a few weeks later. In 1978 Denis Healey memorably said that an attack from Howe was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Several years later when Healey congratulated him on being made Foreign Secretary, Howe told the House of Commons it was “like being nuzzled by an old ram”. Despite their differences the two remained close friends. Both, from different perspectives, would have relished the challenges now facing George Osborne and Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.

Author details: 
Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.