Justice delayed is justice denied
Courts play a key role in ensuring access to local justice for all. Since 2010 over 250 courts have closed in England and Wales and the Public Accounts Committee criticised HM Courts and Tribunals Service for its lack of effort to review the impact of these closures.
By March 2023, HMCTS expects to employ 6,500 fewer full-time equivalent staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4 million per year and reduce annual spending by £265 million.
Delivery of justice services is seeing a massive shift to a centralised administrative service based in an as yet unknown but small number of Court and Tribunal Service Centres (CTSCs) in England and Wales. We are concerned at the distinct lack of consideration for the impact on staff that these reforms will undoubtedly have.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) who represent court staff, warn that the transformation programme is being driven by the 40% Ministry of Justice budget cuts (more than any other department) rather than any genuine desire to improve access to justice or the service provided.
There is no evidence to support HMCTS’s contention that their reforms are providing a more open and accessible justice system. In the Civil Service People Survey 2018 only 21% of respondents agreed that where changes are made in HMCTS they are usually made for the better and only 33% agreed that the reform programme will mean that the people who use court services will receive a better service than they do today.
The reforms are reliant on the increased use of digital technology. However, the reliability of technology in our courts just isn’t up to scratch and the new technology that’s been introduced so far is far from reliable. According to a Speak up for Justice report ‘Justice Denied’ in 2016, that took place after new technology had been deployed, only 4% of staff who responded to a survey agreed that IT in courts works effectively while the language used to describe it included ‘ancient’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘incompatible’.
The introduction of Divorce and Probate Services online have led to more delays. Since Divorce moved online, figures show on average it took 373 days from the issue of petition to decree absolute in 2018, a 9% increase from 2017. The eight day wait for issuing the petition has more than doubled in a year while the average time from the issue of petition to decree nisi has increased by 17% to an average of 195 days.
The introduction of probate online has also increased the time it takes for probate to be granted with the number of stops on digital applications at levels never seen with the paper process. PCS are also concerned that the reforms are being used as a smokescreen for further privatisation of justice services. The Probate Service has outsourced bulk scanning and printing services, meaning that civil servants with experience of checking sensitive documents such as wills, are now being expected to make decisions based on a document they cannot see and on information provided by the inexperienced staff of a private company.
PCS are calling for a moratorium of further court and tribunal centre closures while the impact of those already made is assessed, both in terms of access to justice as well as the impact on staff.
The union is also calling for proper consultation to be held over the centralisation of administrative services to ensure that jobs and services are protected.