Jury is out on courts agency

Sharon Wallach canvasses views on a major change in the way justice is administered

From next Monday, the Courts Service, until now under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor's Department, will make the transition to executive agency under a chief executive, Michael Huebner. All courts apart from magistrates' and coroners' courts, which remain under local control, will be affected.

The details of the agency's framework will be published next week, but what is certain is that they will have an immediate financial impact on the public. Charges for those bringing civil cases to the county court will be introduced, in the region of between £200 and £500 a day. Higher charges may be imposed on companies. Legal aid recipients will not be affected, but the middle-income litigant may find that recourse to the county court is no longer affordable.

Between 50 and 70 courts have been identified as less busy than others. Some may close, although this may wait until the publication of the review of civil justice by Lord Woolf, who is believed to be considering a streamlined court system.

Change will also come for the 10,000 court staff, with internal reviews of staffing levels and pay grades and a rolling programme of 200 to 300 job cuts a year.

Unsurprisingly, the move to agency status for the courts has attracted a mixed response. The Labour Party believes that by introducing free-market values, it threatens the independence of the judiciary. In a break from the tradition that separates judges from court administration, consultative committees have been set up between the judges and the agency. And the agency's talk of "reducing the unit cost of production per court hour" may, Labour suggests, put pressure on a judge to try to wind up a case more quickly. The Lord Chancellor insists that judicial independence will not be compromised, but questions remain about what will happen if the agency believes it is prevented from meeting its targets of swifter case turnover because of delays by judges.

Lawyers are viewing the arrival of the new Courts Service with caution. "If it means a more clear-thinking approach from court staff, the end result could be better for everyone," said Suzanne Burns, of the Law Society. "The concern is over the Lord Chancellor's decision that courts should be self-financing in the long term."

The society has yet to formulate official policy on the philosophical issue of whether it is right in principle for a litigant to pay in full for the courts. One view, Ms Burns said, is that the system exists not just to resolve disputes between individuals and between individuals and the state but also to establish precedents. "There is a public interest function attached, so there is a strong argument that the litigant should not pay in full."

Another contentious aspect of balancing the books is court closures, which are being implemented in a low-key way at local level. "To date, the Lord Chancellor's Department hasn't found it attractive to follow a national strategy for closure," said Ms Burns. Instead, it has concentrated on providing facilities in "trial centres". "There is a lot of sense in that, but if the small courts round the trial centres are closed, it would have a knock-on effect in physical terms on access to justice."

Roger Smith, director of the Legal Action Group, described the new agency as a double-edged sword. "There are advantages in making the courts an administrative stand-alone, separate from policy functions and the Civil Service," he said. "But the worry as far as the Lord Chancellor's Department is concerned is what happens to policy within the department if there are increasing divisions between those carrying out the policy and those who decide it."

This is unlikely to be difficulty during the first phase of the agency, largely because of the involvement of people such as the chief executive, Michael Huebner, who is a former head of policy at the LCD. But, said Mr Smith, in the longer term there will be a problem because of the increasing distance of the department from the practical effects of its policy. "There is a question whether the LCD will remain viable with only a small cadre and core of civil servants working on policy," he said.

Philip Sycamore, chairman of the Law Society's civil litigation committee, said that the agency will be good news for court users if it means a more businesslike and streamlined approach for the court service. "What I am concerned about is whether the pressure to be self-financing will have an impact on fees to such an extent that it affects access to justice."

The agency has provoked controversy even before its launch. Its logo, intended to represent the scales of justice but described in one quarter as more like a suspension bridge over a precipice, cost £32,741. It will be interesting to discover when the service publishes its framework document just how many days in court that sum would buy.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing