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.

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