What Price Justice?

In 2010 when the Coalition came to power the UK had approximately 660 courts in the UK. They began a programme of closing these buildings and in 2012 the PCS London Courts branch held two public meetings to oppose the then programme of Court Closures, specifically Ilford County Court and the Mayors and City County Court. Sadly, Ilford was, nonetheless, subsequently closed.

Since 2010 there have been over 100 courts closed in the UK. This was allegedly to “save” money and address the alleged austerity agenda. However, to date there remain 13 still unsold buildings that cost £500,000 a year to run. There are some courts outside of London that are costing £10,000 per month each to maintain.

Despite this huge waste of tax payers money, the government have only secured approximately £49,000,000 in these sell offs. When seen against the alleged size of the national debt it hardly appears a productive or financially sound approach when the National Debt is considered in billions of pounds. This is, more realistically, an attack on access to Justice.

In the lead up to the 2015 General Election in January PCS Ministry of Justice London Region met with the London Regional management. We asked two direct questions, the first “Were there any court closures planned?” we received a single word answer “No”. We then asked had they been asked to provide a contingency plan for court closures should the government be returned to power after the General Election. Once again we received a single word answer of “No”.

After the General Election on the 22nd July 2015 it was announced that there would be a consultation on a further 91 court closures (with 22 being “integrated and 4 already closing due to prior consultations) and that the consultation would last until 8th October 2015. It is significant that Parliament had already risen for its summer recess prior to this announcement. It would return to work in September when there was only one week of business prior to the parliamentary parties conference season which ended on 9th October 2015. Consequently, there was only time for a 2 hour debate in Parliament during the entire consultation process and this took place in early September.

Should these proposals be carried out in full this will leave the UK with a Justice sector that has halved its access to Justice in the course of the last few years of Tory control. It is further concerning that regardless of the arguments proposed for the closures being that of ‘under used’ courts that this has been as a consequence of governmental action of the redistribution of specific work and regardless of the alleged cost saving agenda.

The removal of Family work from the current estate into new commercial sector premises rather than reduce costs can only have increased them exhorbitantly. The said removal of family work in the HMCTS from already held courts increased the administrative process of liaison between buildings without any substantive increase in staffing or terms and conditions to reflect these changes. This rather than reducing workloads just shifted it but at an increased cost for the additional cost of the new commercial HMCTS estate.

So the assertion of under used courts has been as a consequence of the acquiring of commercial leasehold estates to conduct Family work previously done at these courts now stated as under used. The cost of family work at the legacy estate has now been increased by the additional costs of both the still held legacy estate and now additional leasehold commercial premises for family specific cases only. Whilst is to be welcomed that families are getting an increased benefit in the access to Justice consideration it is to be noted that in general the access to Justice has come under significant attack in the past 5 years.

One of the most clear demonstrations of any democratic society is its access to Justice. With each further proposal for court closures it becomes increasingly obvious that our once highly regarded Justice system is being diminished daily and our society’s rights being whittled away.

The current proposals in the consultation have significantly failed to rule out any further court closures so it can be reasonably assessed that this is just part of an ongoing reduction of MoJ Court buildings in the UK and a demolition of Justice for the wider population. The underpinning to these proposals has been the alleged impact assessment. However, this was so skewed as to be virtually useless.

Extensive explanations of why the closures were required were offered, whilst it contained the barest minimum explanation of what service the current court buildings offer. Indeed, any concept of service is completely lost in the assessment as it overarchingly concerns itself with costs savings. The said savings are stated to be £34 million, which after remedial works to the closing courts, will bring in £25 million in supposed savings. At no point does the assessment consider what we referenced above in opening this discussion document that of the continuing costs to the tax payer of maintaining buildings the government has failed to sell.

Throughout this process the staff have been, at worst, lied to in an openly unscrupulous manner, which is entirely at odds with the requirements of the Civil Service Code, and in its most generous consideration the information regarding court closure had inadvertently been overlooked by said managers under pressure of a heavy workload. Alternatively of course, and much more likely, the said managers have been constrained and instructed by more senior decision makers to ensure the process of court closures goes smoothly without the loss of administrative staff until such time as the announcement is made, as appears to have happened here.

The consultation documents are a thin, poorly thought-out collection of banal ideas based upon a presumption that simply closing courts will offer substantive savings. The only coherent plan inherent in this document appears to be that of the reduction of access to justice for the wider population and by any means and regardless of the consequences. There also appears to be a political party approach reducing access to justice to areas of the population that did not support the current government at an election and consequently they have been targeted in this one aspect, access to justice in London.

The document that we placed before our Trades Union membership of PCS London Courts branch in January 2015 attempted to express our concerns for the potential for court closures in 2015. It is now to be seen that this document was only flawed in the analysis in one aspect. We had concluded that there would be approximately ten court buildings in London subject to such proposals including one Crown Court. The current consultation document offers two Crown Courts for closure, none of which are based in London.

We continue to express our concern, given the size and density of the London population, in respect of these proposals as they now stand confirmed and how they fail to take account of any matters, apparently, other than a seemingly obsessive attitude towards cost cutting. Especially as many of the justifications for court closure are based upon usage figures (also referenced as ‘under usage’) that come after a concerted effort to create a worse administrative process than was already in situ.

The only reasonable conclusion we can come to, and based upon the ongoing drive over a 35 year process, is that the current administration, following on from the last, wish to create a set of circumstances within HMCTS based upon their changes to the administrative process that destroys the service process to such an extent that they will eventually assert in dogmatic terms that the court services are not fit for purpose and should, as a consequence, be privatised. We believe that this has been an ongoing process with this objective in mind. We do not believe that the court closure programme is to ensure efficiency and effectiveness so much as the softening up of yet another public sector area to eventually be opened up to profiteering private companies. Thus begging the question: “What price justice ?”

D Putson Branch Secretary PCS London Courts branch

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