News

Trio of top judges fend off criticism on £1.2 billion court modernisation programme

By on
24

Widely-condemned court closures are means of ‘liberating capital’ where ‘money is not limitless’, select committee hears

Sir Ernest Ryder, Lord Burnett of Maldon and Sir Terence Etherton

The three heads of the judiciary rang rings around MPs yesterday during an evidence session of the House of Commons justice select committee.

As part of its inquiry into what has been labelled the “hugely ambitious” modernisation programme of the courts and tribunal services (HMCTS), MPs attempted to cross-examine the three justices (the first time they have appeared together before the committee) with a number of concerns, such as over the potential reduction in access to justice as a result of mass-digitisation.

Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice, took the lead on rebuffing such concerns by stating: “No litigant-in-person will be required to use digital services”, reassuring the committee that paper versions would still be available.

The star-studded judicial line-up in the committee room, featuring not only Lord Burnett but also Sir Terence Etherton, current Master of the Rolls, and Sir Ernest Ryder, Senior President of Tribunals, also fended off criticism over a dystopian vision of online courts where evidence is submitted online and decisions are made online, often in a vacuum of legal advice.

Burnett’s repost was that any such processes would not be used where it would not be suitable, for instance in crime cases, and that the way any case was run would still be “under judicial control”, arguing: “[Those concerned] are directing criticism at things that are not in contemplation.”

Court closures, a staggering 162 magistrates courts and whopping 62 county courts in recent years, were also raised by Victoria Prentis MP, a member of the justice committee (and a former pupil of Lord Burnett’s at Temple Garden Chambers). The response from Lord Burnett was that such closures were there “to liberate capital”, and that ministers decided on court closures only after “very wide consultation” concluding that “in all of this the government has struck a balance of trying to achieve a proportionate outcome where money is not limitless.”

The modernisation programme, a joint enterprise between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the judiciary, is aimed at digitising paper-based services, putting some cases online, introducing virtual hearings and closing courts.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

Though long-suspected of being a response to austerity, Burnett made the case for the programme:

“This is a long-overdue modernisation of our system which has ossified over the last 20 years with a lack of resources. The reform programme is about a lot more than digitisation. We can’t stand still. As the public at large uses tech, it would be quite remarkable if the courts alone among all aspects of society didn’t attempt to keep up.”

The committee’s inquiry was set up in response to another committee’s eye-popping report on the modernisation programme. In 2018, the Public Accounts Committee described the programme as “hugely ambitious and on a scale which has never been attempted anywhere before.”

The report stated that “such sweeping changes will be extremely challenging to deliver,” highlighting that HMCTS was already behind schedule. Perhaps more concerning, however, was the report’s warning that “HMCTS needs to ensure that the savings expected from these reforms are genuine rather than the consequence of shunting costs to other parts of the justice system such as the police, prison service or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), all of which have their own pressures to manage.”

Indeed, throughout the session, the elephant in the room was the chronic lack of funding in the justice system: whether that is for legal aid, for decrepit courts, and so on. As Lisa Wintersteiger, chief executive of the access to justice charity, Law for Life, neatly put it in the previous evidence session of this inquiry in June:

“There is a sense that the technology can be a panacea for the evisceration of the advice sector and the loss of legal aid.”

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter

24 Comments

Anonymous

Old people, disconnected from reality who the barristers have to suck up to. Lol.

Anonymous

Cretin

Clear Sight

Reorganising the courts is a coverup for all the criminal joint enterprise crimes that are taking place inside the courts: judiciary, court workers and managers, and criminals with law and accounting degrees.

https://vimeo.com/288822292

Public is waking up to the crimes

Anonymous

What a load of absolute nonsense. The County Court has First instance jurisdiction over the majority of bankruptcy proceedings but what you are referring to is Insolvency appeals which go to the High Court from the County Court (to an ICC Judge, formerly registrars). The High Court has the appellate jurisdiction by virtue of a number of Acts and by virtue of the Insolvency Rules and the Insolvency Practice Direction to the CPR.

All this freemen on the land nonsense is tiring. I’m sorry that you borrowed money and didn’t pay it back, or alternatively I’m sorry that you didn’t properly pursue the defence of a defendable petition but perhaps you should have put your hand in your pocket and paid for a Barrister

Anonymous

Would help to decriminalise a lot of stuff which is currently criminalised and takes up a lot of police and court times. In the civil courts, more cases without merit should be sifted out on the paper.

A computer

Machines are better than humans. Look forward to your upcoming enslavement, fleshy scum.

Anonymous

Upcoming?? We’ve been enslaved for centuries.

Walter the Wobot

Call-Me-Kenneth lives!

Random passer-by

@ Polly Botsford

Re-read that first sentence again and tell me you’re a journalist. Sorry to be a pedant but if you can’t even bother to get the first sentence of an article (or essay) right then why should we bother to read the rest.

Anonymous

It doesn’t get better. Did Lord Burnett really “repost” something as paragraph 5 suggests, or did he issue a “riposte”?

Anonymous

A person after my own heart.

Anonymous

So the Court Service is a complete failure and is falling apart but the good news is that those in charge avoided any criticism … again …

Great.

Anonymous

Why are judges defending government policy? Shouldn’t the government be doing that?

Anonymous

They had to find someone capable of reading first. Judges usually make the cut.

Anonymous

Wherever the money is being spent it sure ain’t Central London County Court. What an utter utter disgrace and sh1thole.

Anonymous

And, can I add, sweatbox?

Anonymous

I think the Thomas More is a great improvement over Park Crescent (esp. the DJ side of Park Cres) and Thomas More itself has been quite well refurbished. I take it you didn’t go there when it was Chancery Masters, Bankruptcy and the Companies Court?

Anonymous

Poster @09:59 here. In fact I used to go there all the time when Bankruptcy and Companies was over there. It had decent waiting areas (plenty of space in room 1:10) and competent staff. These days I only ever go to the fourth floor where the CLCC DJs are (mercifully only about once or twice a year) and it is completely appalling.

Gladiatrix

‘Repost’? Did you mean ‘riposte’?

Anonymous

If I post this again does it become a repost? Or a riposte? Or both?

Anonymous

Easy ways ofsaving money:
Easy ways to save a lot of money:

1) Move all NHS negligence claims to an administrative body not a legal one.
2) Move divorce asset distribution to an administrative body not a legal one, with a 10% fee of allocated assets over say £200k to pay for it.
3) Streamline the rules of criminal evidence as 17th century burdens and concepts are unnecessary for the 21st century and just add to costs and delays.

Anonymous

I actually think 1 and 2 are great ideas.

Anonymous

Seconded

Anonymous

Agreed! Divorces, clin neg and the GMC need to pull their finger out!

Join the conversation