Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher looks at the latest court closure announcement and Labour’s access to justice commission

Spare a thought for civil servants who are toiling away even harder to make up for headcount reductions in Government departments. 

Their ‘space standards’ have also been reduced. Since 2010, the space per Government employee has been reduced by 20%, enabling the Cabinet Office to claim that the civil service is now more efficient than the UK private sector with average space of 10.4 square metres per Government employee, compared with 10.7 square metres for a private sector worker.

These facts were recently disclosed in the State of the Estate which describes the Government’s progress in consolidating and modernising its estate. Launching this report, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, Matt Hancock said that, as part of the Government’s ‘laser’ focus on cutting the national deficit, it had shrunk its estate by 2.4 million square metres since 2010. This is a 22% reduction, equivalent to 336 football pitches, 43 Shards or, apparently, more than the entire principality of Monaco. Claiming savings of £1.8bn to date from the rationalisation of its estate, the Government aims to save a further £2bn over the next 10 years.

It is against this background that the Ministry of Justice has been pursuing its court closure programme. It fell to the junior minister who is responsible for courts and legal aid, Shailesh Vara MP to announce the Government’s decision to axe 86 courts and tribunals out of 91 previously earmarked for closure.

Over 2,100 responses had been submitted by the public in response to the Ministry’s proposals for changes in the courts estate. In addition to being a feature of the Government’s estate rationalisation initiative, the court closures are also part of the wider courts and tribunals reform programme launched by Chris Grayling, with the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, in 2014.

The decision to close a court or tribunal must never be taken lightly. It was significant, therefore, that the closure announcement, which had followed a vociferous campaign, not least by the Magistrates’ Association, was made by a Written Ministerial Statement – thus avoiding any parliamentary debate on the day MPs went off for their half-term recess.

There are currently 460 court buildings in England and Wales, which cost taxpayers £500m a year. For the financial year 2014-15, nearly half of the courts estate was used for less than half of its available hearing time.

The financial logic is clear, but the court closures were explained in language that is becoming familiar.

We will be moving to a system of justice, it is said, where more cases can be resolved more quickly and efficiently without the need for a formal hearing or indeed for a lawyer. Surplus estate, better IT and the need to achieve significant savings in the cost of administering justice are driving the search for alternative ways of making justice accessible.

Mr Vara’s statement sought to reassure parliamentarians that 97% of the population would still be within an hour’s drive of their nearest court building. That may be of limited comfort to their constituents who have to rely on public transport in remote parts of the country. These areas may also, of course, have been transformed into ‘advice deserts’ following the demise of high street solicitors’ firms, in the wake of the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Legal Aid programme which led to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

Is it simply wistful to mourn the passing of ‘local justice’ as the Ministry urges everyone to place their faith increasingly in information and communications technology to collapse distance and cut the cost of administering justice?

Shailesh Vara was described, 16 years ago at the Conservative Party Annual Conference, by a former Chairman of the Bar, Bob Alexander QC (Lord Alexander of Weedon), as a ‘future Conservative Party Leader’. Whether that prediction will be fulfilled remains to be seen.

The Lord Chief Justice’s assessment, in his Annual Report 2015, that our system of justice had become unaffordable to most, was echoed by the Shadow Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer in Labour’s response to the Government’s court closure announcement. Charlie Falconer claimed that Labour had long argued that court costs should be reduced and alternative ways of bringing justice closer to people should be examined. ‘With many of the courts closed by the Tories in the last Parliament sitting empty for months and costing millions in upkeep,’ he said, ‘Ministers should make sure that the disposal of future courts provided value for money for the taxpayer.’

Meanwhile, Labour’s Access to Justice Commission has begun work. The review of civil, crime, family and social welfare law has four main aims. First, to set out the principles that should be at the heart of the legal aid system. Secondly, to develop a legal aid policy that is ‘credible, principled and up to date’. Thirdly, to look at the consequences of LASPO and the legal aid cuts. Lastly, to influence the present Government to make changes to their existing policies.

Although the Justice Commission was launched with a rousing speech by Jeremy Corbyn last November, for several weeks nothing happened, it is said (and you guessed), because of lack of funding. Then the Fabian Society came to the rescue to provide a secretariat.

Chaired by Lord Bach (a former Minister of Justice in the Blair Government), the Commission has 14 members and two special advisers. Members of the Commission include Julie Bishop (Director of the UK Law Centres Network); the former Court of Appeal judge and serial NGO patron, Sir Henry Brooke; crossbench Peer, Tanni Grey-Thompson (paralympic athlete and promoter of several LASPO amendments during the Bill stages); Carol Storer (tireless Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group) and Bill Waddington (veteran criminal solicitor).

Last month the Chairman of the Bar appeared before the Commission just after having given evidence to the Commons Justice Committee on the Government’s latest court and tribunal fee increases. In a small, airless room in Westminster crammed with commissioners, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC and other representatives of the Bar Council set out the case for a renewed focus on access to justice and the role of justice in our democracy, both of which had been neglected by parliamentarians over the years. The Government’s selective representation of the cost of legal aid, that at the start of the Parliament in 2015 it was more generous than any other EU nation or comparable common law jurisdiction, was a source of concern because every justice system had different cost drivers and looking at legal aid in isolation was unhelpful to say the least.

The Chairman of the Bar told Labour’s Justice Commission that LASPO and other reforms had reduced the legal aid budget from about £2.4bn to £1.6bn, a saving of £800m. This was the equivalent amount of the overspend on two aircraft carriers in 2013. Overall, the cost of our system of justice is below the European average. It costs the British taxpayer less than 2 Euros a week, which is less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Access to justice costs. The price we are prepared to pay for it is a matter of political judgement. The danger in these austere times of bandying figures about the cost of justice (or about the cost of the state for that matter) is that one ends up knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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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.