There are always two clues for the eagle-eyed journalist that an announcement is going to cause trouble.
The first is the announcement itself: the less detail, the more controversial it’s likely to turn out. It’s like the Titanic captain telling passengers the ship is suffering a little turbulence and they should go back to bed. The second is the reaction. Unless it’s full-blown fanfares and ringing endorsements, you know the people that matter hate the idea.
Take Chris Grayling’s announcement this week about making more money from the courts service.
For a start it was made on the final day before the Easter parliamentary recess. This inevitably brings to mind a fare dodger heading to the back of the train to avoid the ticket collector. Then the lack of detail was staggering, with Grayling hinting at making greater revenues from international litigation and ensuring that those who litigate ‘pay their fair share’.
The response from the judiciary was drenched in between-the-lines scepticism, with the lord chief justice noting that he ‘recognises the wisdom of exploring ways to achieve funding arrangements which are consistent with the independence of the judiciary, the responsibility of the state to provide access to justice and the need for appropriate accountability’. Perhaps a simple ‘don’t even think about it’ would have sufficed.
My fear is that Grayling is being too modest in his attempts to wring every penny out of our courts system.
The most obvious ways of filling the black hole are to raise fees. Let billionaire Russian oligarchs cough up a bit more if they want to use our courts like a playground. If English courts really are the envy of the world, as we are constantly told, we should charge premium rates for them.
But why stop there? Why not add revenue streams to our courts? You want to take a comfort break during proceedings? It’ll cost you. Those wooden seats a little uncomfortable after a few hours? We’ll rent you a cushion – for a price.
SkyBet memorably told us that sport matters more when there’s money on it – so let’s get the bookies involved in trials. We’ll have odds on the verdict and spread betting on how long the jury will be out for. Of course, you’ll want to maximise advertising revenues. ‘This judgment, as sponsored by Budweiser’ has a nice ring to it. We could see branded water on each bench, advocates’ gowns backed by BT (it is good to talk, after all) and we can have sponsors’ logos on judicial wigs (though perhaps supermarkets might shy away from links with horse hair).
In fact, once the TV cameras are inside courtrooms, the floodgates can really open. The foreman of the jury can go to an ad break, in the style of Chris Tarrant, before giving his final answer. Maybe sentences could be cut for prisoners who consent to product endorsement: ‘In mitigation I just can’t get enough of that sweet Coke taste’ will be worth at least a quarter off.
Court naming rights are an open goal: the Old (Spice) Bailey, the McDonalds Magistrates’ Court. The Ryanair Royal Courts of Justice.
Lord chancellor, this truly is your chance to stamp your indelible mark on the legal profession. Given the right measures we’ll have our courts turning a profit in no time.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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