Privatising the courts

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Last year the government fattened up the Royal Mail for privatisation by imposing a 30% hike in the cost of a first-class stamp - its biggest price rise for 37 years. Job done. Annual profits have soared, it was disclosed this week. The Queen’s head is duly on the block, in the most ambitious privatisation since British Gas in 1986. If you see Sid... well, he probably knows already.

Could Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service also be bundled into the shop window, amid revenue-raising plans to means-test waivers for civil court or tribunal fees? I can’t see why not. We know the justice secretary is not averse to ‘drawing a new frontier in the boundary between public and private sectors in justice’, which is what the probation officers’ union said when he unveiled plans for the wholesale outsourcing of the probation service.

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The Land Registry is understood to be among other public entities in the government’s sights.

We can all see that the privatisation bandwagon rolls on; in fact, it has picked up speed, all over Europe. Cash-strapped governments are frantically rummaging through the attic in search of what remains of the ‘family silver’ (as erstwhile PM Harold Macmillan described national assets put up for sale by Margaret Thatcher).

Most pertinently, perhaps, older readers will recall that over a decade ago HMRC’s founding constituents signed over its property portfolio to an offshore company now known as Mapeley Steps. (If you want to know how that worked out, google ‘National Audit Office’ and ‘Mapeley’.)

There are parallels here. HMCTS was created as recently as two years ago as one integrated agency, just as the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise were rolled together in 2005. And HMCTS has lots of ramshackle estate, amid a court closure programme which, the last time we checked, was failing to catch fire in a moribund provincial commercial property market.

Why not just contract out the whole lot, and expose the 21,000 staff who work for it to a cleansing blast of commercial discipline? There must be savings begging to be made from a £1.7bn budget. Perhaps some of them could be spent on criminal legal aid.

G4S Court Management Services – that has quite a ring to it, no? Space could be franchised to Costa and the like. The possibilities are endless. And just think what the Rolls Building would fetch.

In fact, it’s already started. Court enforcement is already up for privatisation, to the consternation of firebrand Mark Serwotka’s Public and Commercial Services Union. There’s another incentive too – neutering Mr Serwotka and co. I wonder that Mr Grayling hasn't thought of it already.

Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief

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