Justice delayed is justice denied
Courts play a key role in ensuring access to local justice for all. But the government recently announced that it plans to close another 86 courts and tribunal centres across the country. This is in addition to the 142 courts that were closed in the last parliament – all part of government’s austerity drive. Victims of crime and workers who have been unfairly dismissed are all likely to experience justice delayed, as well as having to travel longer distances to get to a court or tribunal.
The government is expecting to plug the gaps with increased use of technology in courts. However, there is no evidence that this has been robustly tested and there have been regular problems with video links already used in courts and many buildings still have no Wi-Fi access.
Existing courts have already been thrown into chaos as legal aid cuts of £220m per year have seen a big rise in people attempting to represent themselves. Lack of representation denies thousands of people access to justice and causes delays in court hearings – affecting justice for all. The government has also now imposed criminal court charges, which are leading some to plead guilty, because costs rise for those who fight a case but lose. Those convicted are expected to pay up to £1,200. More than 50 magistrates have resigned in protest at the charge, and many doubt that the debt will be collected, as a number of defendants are too poor to pay.
Reforms and cuts to funding have led to significant job losses in the court system, increasing delays to hearings. The Crown Prosecution Service has had cuts of 25 per cent since 2010 and some of the longest serving and most experienced lawyers have left the service. Increasingly, there are delays in the preparation of cases, and more high-profile errors being reported in the media.
Following campaigning by PCS, the government recently shelved plans to privatise fine enforcement. We welcomed this decision particularly because the public sector body responsible for fine collection has been meeting its targets and improved collection rates in each of the last five years. The MoJ squandered in excess of £7 million of taxpayers’ money during the abandoned privatisation process, while PCS maintained that these services should continue to be carried out by the public sector.
Internal shared services were privatised in the last parliament – seeing data from the judiciary, prisons, probation and court staff outsourced to a joint venture company, majority owned by Steria UK. This has already resulted in job cuts and service delivery issues. The Ministry of Justice is seeking to broaden the scope of this service to cover police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and other parts of the justice system, presenting a real risk to government data, and possibly UK jobs.