The act of stripping out costs and processes occupies a huge acreage of business theory, and was a mainstream preoccupation for senior management even in better economic times. Policymakers, thinktank researchers and civil service fast-streamers all have ‘magpie’ tendencies, and staring at tight and vanishing budgets, one can see why the language of stripping out unnecessary cost is attractive.
Talk of ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions, and state employees being paid over the odds in deprived regions reinforces the impression that cuts are addressing a sort of public service obesity problem.
But the fear across the justice system must be that policymakers have entirely misread the context in which the state’s resources and services are operating. On the evidence, a severely underweight and undernourished justice system is being sent on a crash-course diet. Such is the starvation level of the diet, that folk in the commercial world, depending as they do on a publicly funded infrastructure, are also getting nervous.
As Francesca Kaye, president of the London solicitors litigation association, writes in Gazette Online today, the counterproductive penny-pinching over the cost of court translators and county court reforms worries her deeply.
Why? Well because, ‘The criticism of the ministry of justice around the court interpreters’ contract and concerns about the implementation of the county court money claims centre may presage what's to come on the civil side.’
Kaye adds: ‘Civil litigators are concerned that these may be telling examples of a prevailing cost-cutting mood within the Ministry of Justice, which could impact on how reforms being ushered in under LASPO might be approached. At present there is a real risk that insufficient resource and stakeholder engagement in advance could result in yet another debacle for government and adversely affect access to justice.’
The creaks in the system caused by now-institutionalised impecuniousness are already evident in the growing complaints – from represented parties and the judiciary – of the delays and costs arising from a sustained growth in litigants in person.
I find visits to the Royal Courts of Justice looking for papers related to claims that interest me, or I have been tipped off about, instructive. The architecture of the courts is magnificent, imperial, breathtaking. But within the parts of the organisation the public rely on, the place is a mess – albeit in a rather gorgeous case.
Difficult-to-understand instructions are taped and blue-tacked to walls and windows, by counters superintended in places by staff with a seemingly poor grasp of English, who reel off form numbers, processes and instructions at baffled litigants in person.
It is in contrast to the introduction to bringing a claim anyone walking into a City law firm would get. Guided by a decent partner, the insight into how your case might proceed could get to a pretty advanced level without a single baffling form number being shouted as if it were an explanation in itself. There is nothing wrong with the existence of that City experience – instead it feels absolutely as the world should for any individual under pressure.
Of course there is plenty of intelligence and skill working in the justice system thanks to public funds. But unless they are looking only at the architecture, as good judges and skilled advocates drift through the RCJ, it would be hard for them to avoid the impression that the system is, at best, malnourished.
It is not just the case that the contrast between the experience of the City client and a litigant in person is too sharp that one must question if society’s centre can hold. There is also a fear, well expressed by Kaye, that the public infrastructure on which commercial interests rely is also attempting things while dangerously underweight.
A closing thought - back to business’s approaches to cutting costs. One way to cut costs is to find a better way to do things, to rely on innovations that work, or to discern where you are doing more than is necessary. The other way is to externalise your costs – the dump the poison in the river option.
As the justice system and the MoJ itself seek to make savings, it feels as if innovation has very little to do with the exercise. Instead costs are being frantically externalised - to be borne by individuals, businesses, advocates and law firms.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor