Last November’s Spending Review featured a £27bn windfall that gave the Chancellor more room to manoeuvre than he had previously anticipated. Planned cuts to tax credits were rolled back and the police budget was ring-fenced, but no protection was extended to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Under the coalition government, the MoJ reduced legal aid and the cost of prison places to eliminate £2.1bn of annual expenditure. On top of these cuts the department must now find a further 15% of efficiencies. By 2020, it will have seen its budget fall by 45% when compared to a 2010 baseline. Only the Department for Work and Pensions faces a starker challenge in the current decade.
The task is challenging, but not impossible. Reform of the creaking courts estate has been the immediate response, with a consultation last week concluding that 86 courts and tribunal buildings should be scrapped. The legal profession has cried foul, with many raising concerns about access to justice.
These criticisms should be taken seriously, but ultimately they are misguided. Slow and archaic, the judicial system is not meeting the needs of those it serves. Magistrates’ courts are only used 47% of the time, while cumbersome processes have contributed to the lengthening of case durations over the last parliament. These inefficiencies build cost into the system, but they also affect judicial outcomes – the longer a case drags on, the less likely witnesses and victims are to give testimony. Reform can support, rather than hinder, access to justice.
The question for policymakers is how to ensure the court closure programme does not prevent justice from being served. For Lord Justice Leveson, who led a review of efficiency in criminal proceedings last year, digitisation presents a solution. These recommendations have been taken up by Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne, who has worked with consulting firm Accenture to design a new digital justice blueprint for the South East. Replacing administrative hearings with ‘virtual courts’, the model will see defendants, victims, and witnesses participate remotely by video, reducing the costs of unnecessary (and sometimes costly) transport. As Reform details in a paper published today (The future of public services: digital justice), the blueprint forecasts multi-agency savings at £27m.
Previous attempts at digitising courts, such as the 2009 Camberwell pilot, have not been financially viable, so why the optimism now? The fundamental innovation of the South East model is scale. Under-utilisation in Camberwell meant that the substantial cost of upfront investment outweighed the efficiencies that were made. The South East blueprint is not only more geographically ambitious, it will also engage with more actors and cover more hearings.
However, the strongest cause for optimism is the multi-agency approach of the partnership. Local police forces, the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and others are all on board. This is crucial, since the perennial public-sector problem of coordinating action when budgets are not pooled is neatly encapsulated by the digitisation of courts. Reductions in police time enabled by police-to-court video links are dependent on the effectiveness of a court-administered scheduling service; efficiencies gained through virtual courts depend on investment in the police estate. As chair of the local Criminal Justice Board, PCC Bourne has been able to align the financial interests of these fiercely independent institutions.
The proof of the model will ultimately be in its successful delivery, but the potential to innovate further is substantial, providing reform is introduced incrementally. Extending the South East blueprint nationwide, and expanding to include civil, crown and coroners’ courts, would be natural steps. Such a revolution not only has the potential to deliver savings in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds each year. It would also help create a criminal justice system better suited to the contemporary needs of victims, witnesses and defendants.