Friday, 4 May 2018

Trouble in Court

Here we have further news of the secret long-term plans by the MoJ to close all courts in England and Wales:- 

6,500 jobs to be lost in modernisation of UK courts

Number of staff to be cut to around 10,000 by 2022 as part of £1bn overhaul of system

About 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs are being lost and more courts closed under the government’s drive to modernise the justice system through online pleas and remote video hearings. Details of the ambitious extent of the £1bn programme launched in 2016 emerged from a consultation process published by the senior judiciary on Wednesday.

The job loss figure underlines the radical nature of the transformation envisaged by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The justice secretary, David Gauke, recently appointed Tim Parker, the cost-cutting former boss of Kwik-Fit and the AA, as chair of its board. Parker was once nicknamed the Prince of Darkness by trade unions for reportedly driving to a factory in a Porsche to announce mass job losses.

The Judicial Office has released four large documents explaining how the switch to digital working will affect the criminal, civil and family courts as well as tribunals. Feedback is being sought from judges. There will be more remote video hearings, online pleas for minor offences, video replay facilities for jurors in their retiring rooms and fewer physical courtrooms.

The 6,500 job losses will be spread over the period from 2016 to 2022. Disclosed at a time when criminal barristers are refusing to handle new legal aid cases because of cuts to fees and the Law Society has said criminal solicitors are becoming extinct because of reduced payments, the cuts are likely to cause further alarm in the public-funded branch of the legal profession.

“It is proposed that the number of staff will be reduced from 16,500 [at the start of the changes] to just over 10,000,” the judicial consultation documents state. “They will be divided between the courts and tribunals and [HMCTS] service centres.”

There is a commitment to provide sufficient ushers in court, and “digital support officers” will be on hand to support judges in the courts of the future. “The 460 buildings that made up the court estate has been reduced to 350 so far, with more reductions due to come,” the document says.

“These reforms will deliver savings – a necessary condition for securing the financial support of the government – but they will transform the way we operate the system of justice for the benefit of the public and enhance the administration of justice,” the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, says in the foreword.

“Our approach to this modernisation must be rooted in our shared commitment and dedication to improving the administration of justice and access to justice so that we continue to uphold the rule of law.”

HMCTS has begun piloting virtual hearings, including in tax tribunals where claimants can participate from their homes via webcams.

The new single justice procedure, introduced in 2016, will eventually apply to as many as 840,000 cases a year. Under this procedure, if defendants plead guilty either online or in writing, or do not engage with the court, the case will be judged on the papers by a single magistrate working with a legal adviser, and the decision and sentence will be recorded digitally. It will apply to summary, non-imprisonable offences where there is no identifiable victim. Some contested hearings may be conducted via videolinks.

A new computer system is being introduced for all criminal cases in magistrates and crown courts, although national security cases will not be stored on it. Non-judicial staff will be authorised to complete “routine box work” currently done by judges, such as applications to extend time for compliance with an order when there is no risk to the trial date or uncontested special measures applications.

There should be clear procedure rules for those accessing justice online “with limited legal advice”, the documents state. “Processes will be consistent, predictable and easier to understand, especially for litigants in person.”

There are comments from other senior judges in the documents, highlighting concerns over funding and disrepair in the courts. Sir Brian Leveson, the head of criminal justice in the courts, writes: “I appreciate that first thoughts will challenge the reduction of public funding in many different parts of the system but we have to persuade the government that, consistent with our fervent belief in access to justice and in the maintenance of excellence, we have done all that we can to be as efficient as possible.”

The criminal justice document notes: “Much of the court estate is badly maintained and dirty, the result of years of underspending.” The changes must be made with the participation of the judiciary, not imposed, the documents state.

An HMCTS spokesperson said: “We are investing over £1bn to modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer. As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the role for court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice. Since April 2016 we have raised £115m from the sale of underused court buildings – over £34m more than forecast, and every penny of this will be reinvested as part of our modernisation plans.”


This from the Law Society Gazette:-

Why sack the only people propping up our justice system?

Spend an afternoon in any magistrates’ court (take a drink, the water machines have long gone) and you’ll see for yourself the justice system is not working terribly well. The law, to borrow the hashtag, is broken. What is clear is that one thing stands between the system teetering and the system falling over: its people.

These are the security guards frantically running round to a vacant reception to help the same people they just frisked. These are the ushers juggling bulging caseloads and absent defendants, moving cases between courts like an elaborate game of chess. These are the court staff playing the role of counsellor to vulnerable people representing themselves in tragically sad family cases, all the while trying to get on with their actual jobs.

These are the chaplains effectively acting as quasi-legal helpers, guiding utterly clueless and bewildered people to the right courtrooms. Now we hear that court staff numbers are due to be reduced from 16,500 to 10,000. Mass redundancies appear inevitable and further court closures seem to be in the pipeline.

Let’s be clear: the system as it stands cannot cope with fewer people. It barely manages with the people it has. Cutting this number of staff means either making the system worse or fundamentally changing how we administer justice in this country. Anyone trying to argue differently is either blind to the consequences or is simply not telling the truth.

Consultants appear to be making these decisions without the faintest idea what is happening on the ground, with changes nodded through by unquestioning senior judiciary. We should be lauding the hard-working people of our court system and paying them properly (you’ll often hear of vacancies because salaries cannot match those paid for other local civil service roles). Instead we reward their efforts with the threat of job losses. It’s like watching your house burn down and handing a P45 to the firefighters trying to put out the flames.

John Hyde


Finally, barristers have signalled their intention to step up their action. This again from the Law Society Gazette:-

'Nothing to lose': Bar ponders no returns policy to escalate protest

Criminal barristers are close to stepping up their action against legal aid cuts by implementing a ‘no returns’ policy in addition to refusing to taking on new work. The Gazette understands the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is actively considering encouraging members to implement the policy.

Under no returns, barristers agree not to accept cases that are returned by colleagues who have a diary clash. The policy is intended to demonstrate to the government the impact on the wider criminal justice system when barristers withdraw their ‘goodwill’. However, it could create a further backlog in cases if defendants are left without representation.

The last time barristers undertook a ‘no returns policy’ was 2015. An informed source told the Gazette ‘no returns’, combined with a refusal to take on new cases, would be ’highly disruptive’.

‘Given new representative orders are only a month old, no returns would have an impact. It would make life tough for those not earning but that’s how strong the bar feels. There’s almost nothing to lose,’ the source said.

Around 100 chambers have been refusing to take on new work since 1 April in protest at changes to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which determines how advocates are remunerated in publicly funded cases. There are 350 Chambers nationally but not all of those take on criminal cases.

Speaking to the Gazette at Manchester Crown Court, barristers confirmed they were considering escalating their action and that the mood was shifting in favour of no returns. One local solicitor said the start of a no returns policy could derail a murder trial she is currently acting in in which there is a diary clash. In Manchester an upcoming murder trial is scheduled for the coming weeks where no counsel is available for a defendant and the solicitor is being encouraged to use the Public Defender Service.


  1. they mentioned new computer system so over budget, late, doesnt work


    1. Justice in the dock: The innocent are convicted, the guilty go free and magistrates are untrained, claims an anonymous barrister in an excoriating exposé of our legal system

      There is power to anonymity. If you conceal your identity, for whatever reason, there’s simply so much more you can say. You may not get the acclaim or the kudos for saying it, but your freedom to say it is absolute.

      The Secret Barrister is the pseudonym of a jobbing barrister — possibly male, possibly female — who really doesn’t like what has been done to the justice system, and what is still being done to it.

      This book, like one or two nowadays, started as a blog but, unlike most blogs, this one was read by a lot of people and won awards. For whoever he or she is, The Secret Barrister can write. Among bloggers, this is unusual, to say the least. Among writers generally, it’s less common than you might imagine. Among barristers, it’s close to miraculous.

      The very phrase ‘Secret Barrister’ suggests something a bit larky and satirical, full of jokes about wigs. But this is a serious, if not solemn, book, in which SB (as I think we’ll call him/her) patiently explains the justice system we have, and then delineates precisely how it has gone wrong. It’s a damning piece of work. Everyone who has any interest in public life should read it.

      SB’s first point is that we, the sort of people who might read this book, take it all for granted. ‘I imagine few of us devote much, if any, time to thinking critically about our criminal justice system; to considering how and why we have this particular way of doing justice, or reflecting on the impact it has upon the thousands of people — defendants, witnesses and victims — who pass through the system every year.’

      Compare it with the way we all talk endlessly about the NHS, or about schools. ‘And this I find odd; because criminal justice affects us all.’

      Does it, though? Most of us, in our cosy middle-class bubbles, assume we’re not very likely to get much closer to the Crown Court than watching repeats of Kavanagh QC.

      ‘The law, as it stands, is the province only of the very rich, who can afford the vast sums it now costs to hire a lawyer, and the very poor, who can call upon legal aid. We in the middle assume we are safe from this process, so we think no more about it. We’re even quite good at getting out of jury service: a regular dinner-party boast.

      But amid this complacency, the system is in crisis. The Crown Prosecution Service is a mess. Over the past eight years it has lost more than a third of its workforce. One-quarter of prosecutors have been sacrificed through voluntary redundancy schemes in an aim to meet expenditure cuts of 27 per cent imposed since 2009-10.

      ‘I’ve seen some of the best people leave, seizing their golden ticket to another civil service post where there’s a fighting chance of managing their caseload, without the stress of trying to achieve the impossible dream of running a national prosecuting agency for less than it costs to give free television licences to pensioners.’

      SB doesn’t name names. But he/she does say the Justice Ministry is considered low priority by the Government, a soft target for cuts.

      The upshot is that two things are happening regularly that shouldn’t: innocent people are being convicted, and the guilty ones are going free.

      SB is damning about magistrates’ courts. Magistrates are untrained volunteers, equipped only with goodwill, and sometimes not even that. And yet 94 per cent of all criminal cases are decided at magistrate level.

      What other country in the world outsources so much of its judicial decision-making to people without training, but who often belong to the right golf club? None. It’s only us.

      The Government is mainly concerned, it seems, with throughput in the courts, with ‘getting the numbers through the door and out again, as inexpensively and swiftly as possible’. SB calls this ‘roulette framed as justice’.

    2. In 2015, an inspection found that nearly one in five charging decisions made by police was wrong, and nearly one in ten made by the CPS was wrong too. That could be you who’s charged wrongly. Worse, it could be me. Because that’s when the Innocence Tax comes in.

      Suppose you are wrongly charged with something. You go through the courts, you are refused legal aid, you spend £100,000 on a lawyer, you are found not guilty. You then try to claim back from the Government all the money you spent on legal fees. But you can’t. Because in 2012 the rules were changed. SB talks of ‘reforms snuck on to the statute book by stealth’. And no one knows anything about it.

      This is a book of some brilliance, clearly explained, cogently argued. I’m not sure it’s ‘hilarious’, as someone says on the cover; in fact I found it positively depressing at times, and such wit as there is generally of the mordant variety. Its main distinguishing quality, though, is its absolute reasonableness.

      It could so easily have been a party political rant, and it’s anything but. The book has clearly been written to be read, and maybe it will be, by someone who can actually do something about all this.

  3. Michael Portillo speaking to Radio Times about former HMP Shepton Mallet featuring in tonight's Ch5 'Hidden History of Britain' 9pm tonight:-

    There was one story that particularly intrigued you…

    Yes, I talked to ex-prisoner Ben Gunn, who at the age of 14 killed his friend, was convicted of murder and then spent 32 years behind bars. He’s the most interesting interview I’ve ever done. He took me to places inside the prison that he’d not been to since he was released, and each place set off a cascade of memories: his own cell, the cell where a friend of his committed suicide, the exercise yard where he wasn’t allowed to cross certain lines, and the workshop where he met his lover, a female teacher at the prison. Every place was so evocative to him, and he was constantly inhaling deeply as he coped with the flood of memories

    Did Ben’s story make you think about how prisons work today?

    His story rather depressingly confirmed what I feared. Prison is meant to be about punishment and rehabilitation. But I think that what happens, when prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, is that the rehabilitation goes out the window. I’m not a legal expert, but it amazes me that a lad who was involved in a fight with a friend when he was 14 was convicted of murder as opposed to manslaughter, and then served 32 years. It’s quite similar to the cases revealed recently of 3,000 prisoners who are in the position where they have to prove that they’re not a danger to the public in order for them to be released, and the burden of proof is on the prisoner rather than the state. I think shocking things are happening in our prisons. There is injustice as well as justice, and our ideals that they should serve as a place of rehabilitation are on the whole not being realised.

    The four-part series Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain is on Fridays at 9pm Channel 5

  4. It is amazing how these ex government minister types get wise after they leave government or in Aitkin's case prison - I think the same happened for the Labour bloke McShane - but by the time they understand from the Inside they have no power to effect real change.

    I sometimes avoid this sort of programme - interesting as I am sure it will be - it prompts decades old frustrations to well up as we are shown stuff we were trying to tackle years ago, and basically failed at our attempts.

  5. "This book, like one or two nowadays, started as a blog but, unlike most blogs, this one was read by a lot of people and won awards. For whoever he or she is, [they] can write"

    Future review of "Omnishambles: The Story of TR" ?