MPs called for a ‘pause for breath’ on the government’s £1.2bn court modernisation programme as well as an ‘immediate moratorium’ on court closures (as I reported on the Justice Gap). In a damning report that described the justice system as in ‘administrative chaos’, the House of Commons’ justice committee warned that the proposed reforms risked denying vulnerable people access to justice.
The overhaul of the courts is being led by the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary and aims to introduce greater IT, digitising court, increasingly relying on video hearings alongside a controversial programme of court closures.
‘We understand that courts and tribunals are strained to breaking, with systems that ever more people are having to try to navigate for themselves,’ commented committee chair Bob Neill MP. ‘Court staff and the judiciary are trying hard to improve services in the face of underfunding and cuts. But we are concerned that a vulnerable person – a victim of crime, a woman seeking an order to protect her children, a person with learning difficulties – could be left trying to negotiate enough time at a library to file papers or tune in to an evidence hearing where they are trying to get justice.’
‘We understand and support the principle that modernisation is overdue. But we ask the Government to pause for breath to make sure that everyone of us who needs the court system – to manage a divorce, to seek fair payment, or to get through family cases and criminal cases – must be able to get to court, to access justice, where and when they need to.’
Bob Neill MP. House of Commons’ justice committee
MPs reported ‘powerful evidence’ of a court system in ‘administrative chaos’ as well as ‘the harmful impact’ of staff cuts on victims, witnesses, lawyers, litigants and defendants. ‘Staff shortages in many courts are so serious that they may undermine access to justice and threaten to compromise the fairness of proceedings,’ they wrote.
The report called for a halt to planned and deeper cuts for court workers. Courts workers were ‘clearly overworked and under-remunerated’, the report stated; adding that the committee was ‘deeply concerned’ by the court services’s ‘over-reliance’ on agency staff and called on it to address ‘problems of remuneration, workload and morale as a matter of urgency’.
In evidence to the committee, Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett described the ‘dilapidated and uncomfortable’ court buildings’ as ‘frankly an embarrassment’. The committee took issue with the court service’s rationale for selecting courts for closure through a travel benchmark. ‘No user should be expected to leave home earlier than 8.00 am or return home later than 6 pm and, where necessary, courts and tribunals should be willing to adapt their sitting times to accommodate this,’ it said.
MPs reported that the impact of the legal cuts was flagged ‘time and again’ by witnesses. ‘Many argued that the impact of restrictions imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 and the related phenomenon of “advice deserts” could not be ignored when considering the impact of the reforms and individuals’ access to the court and tribunal system,’ the report said.