21 August 2015 by

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

The announcement by Michael Gove, the Government Justice Secretary, that plans are in place to close 91 courts and tribunals around the country, in an attempt to reduce the costs of, what he describes as “an ageing and ailing court estate”, has not been well received by the legal industry. The Government say that a third of courts were in session for less than 50% of their available time and that there is currently a surplus capacity in the court system.

Lawyers around the country that have regular dealings with the court and tribunal system no doubt took a sharp inhale of breath upon the hearing this news, as the experience of many is that the current system generally struggles to efficiently process the demands of its users, particularly those regional courts that are allocated much less funding than the centralised process centres.

The proposed closures will affect 57 magistrates’ courts, 19 county courts, 2 crown courts, 4 tribunal hearing centres and 9 combined courts and the consultation process is likely to lead to stiff opposition from those whose jobs will be affected, and the users of the court system. Protests have already been held by solicitor’s groups at some of the courts affected by the proposals and the Government will no doubt be pushed to justify the evidential basis for its finding that such a surplus exists.

This process may turn into a positive (if unpleasantly attritional) experience for the court and tribunal service and having such a bright light being shone on its operation and allocation of resources will surely lead to improvement in some form. If there are efficiencies to be found from the threat of such brutal and wide-ranging cuts then the experience will no doubt draw these out; however it is a flaw of the Government’s plan not to present thorough and convincing alternatives to the court system it is trying to streamline.

The Government has said it intends to re-invest the savings it makes from the proposed court closures to develop and implement a greater use of technology to assist the access of justice. Whilst consultation is already taking place for an online dispute resolution process for smaller civil claims, it would be more palatable for those affected by the proposed closures if more advantageous alternatives were proposed in conjunction with the cuts. At present there is only a speculative hope that an already unreliable and inefficient court system can be partially dismantled and improved upon. Were priorities to be re-ordered by the Government, they may find that their landmark proposals receive a softer opposition than is anticipated to the reforms in their current guise.

It is undeniably a topic that will dominate the legal industry in the coming months and, whilst it is universally acknowledged that some change to the current system is needed, agreeing on the final substance of that change is likely to be a heavily contended process.

To find out whether these changes could affect you or if you have any other questions about your use of the court system please contact Marc Thurlow on marcthurlow@boltburdon.co.uk or 020 7288 4768.

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