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Court reforms necessary to avoid ‘salami slicing’ justice

Appeal judge laments ‘painful loss of institutional knowledge’ following years of cuts

26 September 2016

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A senior judge has warned that jobs within HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) may be lost when expected reforms are completed, yet the alternative was a risk of ‘decline by many salami slices’.

Speaking at the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association Conference in Georgetown, Guyana last week, Sir Peter Gross highlighted the 25 per cent cut in court funding between 2010 and 2015, a reduction in the court estate from 636 buildings in 2011 to 471 last year, and the loss of 5,000 staff members, which had led to a ‘painful loss of institutional knowledge’.

‘It is simplistic to regard all reductions as “bad” – some are inevitable and some are “good”,’ said the Court of Appeal judge. ‘Against this background of years of salami sliced reductions in resources, it has been apparent from late 2012 (if not before) that strategic reform was an imperative. The only alternative was decline.’

The senior judge said it was important that the justice system of the future ‘put court users at the centre’ of its considerations, though he nonetheless expected a reduction in HMCTS staffing once the courts moved to a fully digital system.

‘There is no gainsaying that a good number of jobs will be lost: if there is no paper to shift, you do not need employees to shift it. But, importantly, there will also be a need for higher grade staff,’ who, he said, would be required ‘to assist those members of the public who struggle with IT or lack access to it.’

While arguing that the court estate comprised of too many buildings that were not all ‘maintained in a condition’ to command respect, and that investment in an upgraded estate that was fit for the digital age was a necessity, Gross emphasised the need to maintain the delivery of local justice.

‘There cannot be a justice postcode lottery, excluding remote rural areas. Local justice is therefore a given; what is not a given is how best to deliver local justice. It is anything but self-evident that the right course is to spend significant sums on keeping small, under-utilised, poorly maintained courts in service,’ he said.

‘Instead, we are right to explore alternative options: public buildings which we can use from time to time (so-called “pop-up courts”) together with increased use of technology, permitting evidence to be given by way of remote links, saving much unnecessary travel but preserving (and, hopefully, improving) access to justice.’

Gross praised the recent court reform programme, including the ‘striking innovation’ of the online court proposed by Lord Justice Briggs and the £700m investment promised by the treasury.

‘We have had to make do with less resources, a matter of grave concern given the vital importance of the justice system. The reform programme is a necessary response to this financial stringency, the alternative being decline by many salami slices,’ said Gross.

‘But, more importantly, the reform programme is something we should be doing anyway: using the resources available to us, strategically and imaginatively, with a view to devising a user-oriented, modernised and improved justice system, while preserving the brand of trust, confidence, integrity and expertise it has historically enjoyed and continues to enjoy. The stakes are high. There is no Plan B.’

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Sir Peter Gross Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association Conference HMCTS Lord Justice Briggs Online Court