Monday, 29 September 2008

Courts Budget "Black Hole"?

Black holes in space are a proven scientific fact but black holes in public sector budgets are often a matter of dispute. So it would seem with the alleged £90 million ‘black hole’ in the courts budget.

This controversy started with a letter from Lord Justice Leveson which was leaked to the Conservatives. In the letter he outlines the ‘difficult’ financial situation the courts are in, as they have to find £90 million in cuts over the next three years. Henry Bellingham, the shadow justice secretary, made much media hay over the contents of the letter linking it to the continuing controversy over the family fee income. The Justice Minister, Lord Hunt countered and insisted that there was no ‘black hole’ and that the planned ‘efficiency savings’ would have no impact on the people who use the courts service

District Judge Crichton, who set up the pioneering drugs and alcohol court earlier this year, told LAG last week that in the period since September last year applications are down by ‘between 25% and 30%’. ‘I’d love to think there were fewer children at risk but, of course, I am not confident that’s the picture,’ he said. The Judiciary has been outspoken about the enormous hike in fees - up from £150 to over £4000 if a case goes to a full hearing. This is a key part of the government’s plan to make the courts self financing and fits into the Ministry of Justices overall financial strategy. LAG believes that a significant factor in the drop in cases has been the introduction of the Public Law Outline (PLO) which has led to more cases being resolved prior to proceedings being issued. Next month the new proceedings and increase in fees would have been running for six months an opportune time for the Government review whether these changes have led to an improvement or a reduction in the legal protection of vulnerable children.

Important though it is, the debate on the changes to fees and the PLO are side issues in the controversy over the court service budget. Court fee income can fluctuate due to changes in the law and in the economy. LAG notes that in the last quarter creditor’s petitions increased by 18% and housing repossession orders by 24% on the same quarters as last year. It would distasteful in the extreme to herald such figures as a ‘business triumph’ representing as they do the human misery caused by economic woes which risk-taking bankers are largely to blame for. This is perhaps the nub of the judiciary’s objections to the courts service being run like a stand alone business focused on the bottom line.

The administration of justice should be independent of market forces. Court administration should be as efficient as any business, but access to justice should not be determined by the market. The problem is that the MoJ’s difficulties with its overall budget are forcing the service down this route.

By 2010-11 the MoJ has to make £1 billion in savings. This includes £140m from the court service (£60m more than Judge Leveson claims) and £45m from the tribunals, as well as £180m from that other area of great concern to LAG – the rapidly shrinking legal aid fund. This is in part to pay for other priority spending such as the Titan Prisons (another target of judicial criticism) and to meet the department’s overall target set by the Treasury in the Comprehensive Spending Review. With inflation running at 5%, well above the 2% target set by the government, it is likely that the MoJ will have to find further ‘efficiency savings’. The biggest item of expenditure will be the funding of pay increases for staff if they exceed the 2.4% public sector pay policy.

Undoubtedly then a black hole exists, but in the MoJ’s corner of the universe they prefer to call it ‘efficiency savings’ while the rest of us use a more old-fashioned term - budget cuts. Some savings can no doubt be made by more effective management and LAG would support this, but to make the level of cuts necessary to balance the books there will inevitably be reductions in service, such as fewer clerks to administer courts, less judicial time and the maximising of fee income, all at the expense of access to justice for the public.

Steve Hynes is the director of Legal Action Group.