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Sharp rise in cost of criminal courts despite cuts and redundancies

21 September 2010

The cost of the magistrates’ and Crown Courts has risen sharply despite widespread redundancies and millions of pounds in efficiency savings.

Research by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies revealed that spending on magistrates’ courts rose by 31 per cent from £548m in 2005-06 to £717m in 2008-09 and on the Crown Court from £283m to £310m.

Staff numbers at the magistrates’ courts fell by over 1,000 or 14 per cent in the last three years, the report found, with the Crown Court losing six per cent.

Researchers said that the dramatic rise in spending at the magistrates’ courts was explained mainly by a rise in “other” expenditure, such as the costs of shared services and the case management project, Libra. Capital expenditure more than doubled, from £27m to £59m.

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrates Association, said it was difficult to know why spending had increased so sharply, and more details were needed of “other” expenditure.

“It’s not because of more generous payments to magistrates,” Thornhill said. “Travel allowances have increased in line with inflation and magistrates are getting less secretarial help. The building programme has also been cut and we know if any new courts will be built.”

The report found that the volume of cases dealt with by the magistrates’ courts had declined by 16 per cent since 1998, while, over the last four years, there was an increase of 17 per cent in the caseload of the Crown Court.

Thornhill said, even if you factored in a decline in crime, the decline in the magistrates’ courts’ workload was greater.

“Some of it is due to a greater use of out-of-court disposals, some of which is inappropriate,” he said. “There were 37,000 cautions for assault occasioning ABH last year. It’s an issue the government has to deal with.”

A spokesman for the Courts Service said that comparing expenditure over ten years was complex because of the large number of organisations that combined to create HMCS.

“However, in the five years since HMCS was created in 2005, which brought together the 42 independent magistrates’ court committees with other court jurisdictions, we have achieved efficiency savings of some £323m,” he said.

“In this same period, staff numbers have reduced by 12 per cent. By ensuring that funding is focused on frontline services, we continue to prioritise the service we provide to all those who use the courts.”

The spokesman added that the Courts Service was currently considering responses to its consultation on the closure of 103 magistrates' and 54 county courts.

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