07:02, May 02 320 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-02 07:02:04
6,500 jobs to be lost in modernisation of UK courts

About 6,500 courthouse and backroom jobs are being lost and more courts closed under the government’s drive to modernise the justice system through online pleas and remote video hearings.

Details of the ambitious extent of the £1bn reform programme launched in 2016 emerge from a consultation process published by the senior judiciary on Wednesday.

The job loss figure underlines the radical nature of the transformation envisaged by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The justice secretary, David Gauke, recently appointed Tim Parker, the cost-cutting former boss of Kwik-Fit and the AA, as chair of its board. Parker was once nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness” by trade unions for reportedly driving to a factory in a Porsche to announce mass job losses.

Four large documents have been released by the Judicial Office explaining how the switch to digital working will affect the criminal, civil and family courts as well as tribunals. Feedback is being sought from judges about the changes.

There will be more remote video hearings, online pleas for minor offences, video replay facilities for jurors in their retiring rooms and fewer physical courtrooms.

The 6,500 job losses will be spread over the period from 2016 to 2022. Disclosed at a time when criminal barristers are refusing to handle new legal aid cases because of cuts to fees and the Law Society has said criminal solicitors are becoming “extinct” because of reduced payments, the cuts are likely to cause further alarm in the public-funded branch of the legal profession.

“It is proposed that the number of staff will be reduced from 16,500 [at the start of the changes] to just over 10,000,” the judicial consultation documents state. “They will be divided between the courts and tribunals and [HMCTS] service centres.”

There is a commitment to provide sufficient ushers in court, and “digital support officers” will be on hand to support judges in the courts of the future. “The 460 buildings that made up the court estate has been reduced to 350 so far, with more reductions due to come,” the document adds.

“These reforms will deliver savings – a necessary condition for securing the financial support of the government – but they will transform the way we operate the system of justice for the benefit of the public and enhance the administration of justice,” the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, says in a foreword. “Our approach to this modernisation must be rooted in our shared commitment and dedication to improving the administration of justice and access to justice so that we continue to uphold the rule of law.”

HMCTS has begun piloting virtual hearings, including in tax tribunals where claimants can participate from their homes using webcams.

The new single justice procedure, introduced in 2016, will eventually apply to up to 840,000 cases a year. Under this procedure, if defendants plead guilty either online or in writing, or do not engage with the court, the case will be judged on the papers by a single magistrate working with a legal adviser, and the decision and sentence recorded digitally. It will apply to summary, non-imprisonable offences where there is no identifiable victim. Some contested hearings may be conducted via videolinks.

A new computer system is being introduced for all criminal cases in magistrates and crown courts, although national security cases will not be stored on it.

Non-judicial staff will be authorised to complete “routine box work” currently done by judges, such as applications to extend time for compliance with an order when there is no risk to the trial date or uncontested special measures applications.

There should be clear procedure rules for those accessing justice online “with limited legal advice”, the documents state. “Processes will be consistent, predictable and easier to understand, especially for litigants in person.”

There are comments from other senior judges in the documents, highlighting concerns over funding and disrepair in the courts. Sir Brian Leveson, the head of criminal justice in the courts, writes: “I appreciate that first thoughts will challenge the reduction of public funding in many different parts of the system but we have to persuade the government that, consistent with our fervent belief in access to justice and in the maintenance of excellence, we have done all that we can to be as efficient as possible.”

The criminal justice document notes: “Much of the court estate is badly maintained and dirty, the result of years of underspending.” Reform must be carried out with the judiciary, not imposed on it, the documents state.