February 25 2024
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Courts & accountability

Courts & accountability

Why does the closure of every library inspire massive public protest while plans to close 142 local courts (put forward in 2010) prompted scarcely a whimper? Does it matter how many courts we have and where they are situated? These questions are seldom discussed but did hit the headlines earlier in the week when a story in the Times (reported HERE) suggested the government planned a ‘wholesale privatisation’ of the courts service. The government later denied this but did say they were looking at ways to make the courts more efficient.

At the moment a centralised service – Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service – manages all the courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The staff organise court sittings, maintain the buildings and deal with queries from the public. Judges and magistrates are to some extent managed by the court staff, but retain independence in the decisions they take in the court-room.

But, only ten years ago, as my new report (PDF) shows magistrates’ courts were managed locally. Local councils funded the courts and they were run by a committee of magistrates.

Magistrates controlled the budget and hired and fired staff, including the justice’s clerk (who was frequently a powerful figure not just in the court, but in the community). The Courts Act 2003 cut both local councils and magistrates out of the picture, with all staff moving to a centralised service and major decisions being made by the board of the new agency.

This seemingly dull change in the machinery of government had profound consequences:

  1. A programme of court closures was developed in Whitehall involving the closing of huge number of courts at once. Local people, court users, judges, magistrates and councillors were formally consulted on the plans, but not on their gestation. There were a number of vociferous protests but nothing like the protests about libraries. I suspect many local people were unaware their local court was about to close while most didn’t care – they didn’t see the court as a public service relevant to them, partly because it was not connected to any of the other services they used.
  2. Magistrates lost a huge amount of power and responsibility. Having controlled their court, they now had few means of getting their voices heard. Old hands now feel like hired hands, expected just to turn up, sit in court and go along with changes and court closures.
  3. The justice’s clerk as a powerful local figure has all but disappeared. There were over 200 in 1990s but only 26 now. They are employed by the centralised service and cannot, even if they wanted to, have a close relationship with magistrates given they are responsible for giving legal advice to up to 1000.

The courts have long been criticised for inefficiency. So maybe distancing their management from Whitehall would at least help that. But I worry that anything involving the private sector or a BBC like structure will reduce the accountability of a public service and mean that ordinary people would be even less involved in what happens in courts than they are now.

So why not bring magistrates’ courts back to local management? I wouldn’t propose turning back the clock to have the courts run only by magistrates. But it is worth thinking about moving the administration into existing democratic structures (local councils, police and crime commissioners) or creating a board similar to a school governing body. If court administrative staff were under the same roof as community safety officers, youth offending teams or police and crime commissioner staff, it would be easier for courts to help solve the problems of offenders and to identify the services they need. Equally a ‘governing body’ or board structure could include local councillors, court users and even the police and crime commissioner. If you give people a stake in an institution, they become more interested in it and are better able to see how savings could be made.

It’s a vicious circle. People don’t care much about courts now because they have little involvement in them or means of influencing them. And because people don’t seem to care about them, the courts are in danger of becoming even less accountable.