The court reform process will lead to staff cuts and fewer court buildings, the former Senior Presiding Judge has said, but it is not a cost-cutting exercise and the end result should be higher-grade staff and an improved court estate.
Court of Appeal judge Sir Peter Gross said the “stakes are high” with the £700m plan to transform the courts, as “there is no plan B”.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association Conference in Guyana last week, Sir Peter emphasised that the HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) reform programme was not about cost cutting: “Its objective is a modernised and improved justice system. It will deliver savings – but it will do so through efficiencies.
“It is right that it does so; HM Treasury, like any other investor, expects a return on its investment. The savings, however, come as part of a strategy for the future; not as a slash and burn exercise.”
Sir Peter noted that funding for the courts has been cut 25% between 2010 and 2015, meaning staff numbers fell from 22,000 to 17,000, and court buildings from 636 to 471.
“It is simplistic to regard all reductions as “bad” – some are inevitable and some are “good” as I shall suggest – but (to use one example) there has been a painful loss of institutional knowledge flowing from the departure of some very experienced managers and the downgrading of some posts,” he said.
The IT transformation will change a paper-based system into one that is digital by default: “In terms of HMCTS staffing, there is no gainsaying that a good number of jobs will be lost: if there is no paper to shift, you do not need employees to shift it.
“But, importantly, there will also be a need for higher grade staff. If we are to be digital by default, it is essential that the IT works and can be rapidly repaired when, inevitably, there are breakdowns… Moreover, there will be a need for higher grade staff to assist those members of the public who struggle with IT or lack access to it. We cannot exclude anyone, let alone some of the most vulnerable in society, from the justice system.”
On estate rationalisation, the judge said: “The blunt truth is that we have had too many buildings and certainly far more than we can afford to maintain. I am familiar with cities with a number of courts and tribunals buildings, in close proximity to one another, none of them satisfactory.
“Furthermore, courts must command respect; from my own experience, by no means all have been maintained in a condition to do so. We need a smaller estate – but an improved estate.
“We must maintain what we retain. This is not an exercise in squashing judges into less space; we will have to invest in an upgraded estate, fit for purpose in a digital age. We can use the space freed up by losing mountains of paper.
“We can also improve courtroom utilisation – not by suggesting that individual judges work longer hours but by improving our listing practices and recognising that, for some users, courts and tribunals, early morning or evening sittings may be preferable to the customary 10-16.30 or thereabouts.”
The judge stressed, however, that local justice would continue to be an imperative. “There cannot be a justice postcode lottery, excluding remote rural areas. Local justice is therefore a given; what is not a given is how best to deliver local justice.
“It is anything but self-evident that the right course is to spend significant sums on keeping small, under-utilised, poorly maintained courts in service. Instead, we are right to explore alternative options: public buildings which we can use from time to time (so-called ‘pop-up courts’), together with increased use of technology, permitting evidence to be given by way of remote links, saving much unnecessary travel but preserving (and, hopefully, improving) access to justice.”
The third strand of the reforms, he continued, was changed working practices. “Our default position has hitherto involved a presumption in favour of face-to-face hearings. That is not, necessarily, beneficial either to legal professionals or other court users.
“For many a professional, the ability to conduct pre-trial hearings from the office or chambers improves productivity. Court users cannot be assumed to relish a visit to a court, where there are suitable online or remote alternatives. The upshot is that in a digital system we should anticipate less (sic) face-to-face hearings, more work being done on screen and more use made of technology. Naturally, we will need in all this to safeguard the needs of open justice but that is perfectly feasible.”
Sir Peter described the reform programme as a “necessary response” to financial stringency – “the alternative being decline by many salami slices”. He also said it was a chance to put court users at the centre of the system – “hitherto, we have been more producer/supplier oriented”.
He concluded: “But, more importantly, the reform programme is something we should be doing anyway: using the resources available to us, strategically and imaginatively, with a view to devising a user-oriented, modernised and improved justice system, while preserving the brand of trust, confidence, integrity and expertise it has historically enjoyed and continues to enjoy. The stakes are high. There is no Plan B.”