When I were a lad, the trains were genuinely horrible.
They were dirty, usually late and (in my corner of Essex at least) they had manual doors so you could get on board while the train was still moving.
It always strikes me as odd that we hear calls for the renationalisation of the railways, as if turning the clock back would somehow rekindle the set of Brief Encounter rather than the ever-present smell of pee that came with British Rail trains.
This thought came to me when I was asked onto LBC radio to try to explain the government’s rationale for privatising the courts.
A ‘leaked’ government memo on the future of our courts system had found its way into national media, outlining that essentially our courts were up for sale to the highest bidder.
The government quickly backtracked on the story, in a classic example of ‘suggest the worst-case scenario so the middle-ground outcome doesn’t seem so bad’.
LBC wanted an alternative point of view to the vast swathes of outrage and exasperation at another disastrous attack on the legal profession. My first instinct was to join the protestors, but it did make me stop and ask: what exactly is wrong with privatising our courts?
Opposing government plans for the justice system at the moment is like playing that game at the seaside where you bash the crocodile. Once you’ve dealt with one vicious-looking beast, another pops right up.
But what if Chris Grayling has a point on this one? Just what is so bad about allowing a private company to run our courts?
Like British Rail used to be, our courts system is an outdated, dysfunctional mess. Cases are routinely delayed, the buildings are often decrepit relics, and the experience of witnesses and victims is often harrowing. I’ve seen for myself victims having to face criminals in the public waiting area as there is too little space for them to be kept apart.
Documents are reported to disappear regularly, office hours are limited and have you tried to actually call a courtroom recently? You’ll be waiting a while.
Courtrooms are woefully ill-equipped for modern-day use. Technology is limited to a few sparsely-placed plug sockets and the chances of W-Fi are virtually nil.
For this service we pay roughly £1.7bn every year – a significant chunk of the Ministry of Justice’s £7bn budget. Rather than ask why we should let a private company, should we not be wondering why continue to leave such an important job to a government department that seems so incapable?
Who is to say a private company would do any worse? At the moment HMCTS is unlikely to face repercussions for a poor service other than a slapped wrist from the public accounts committee and the odd damning annual report.
Bringing in a private company might make them accountable and required to provide a good service if their contract is to be renewed. Fail and you can expect to be turfed out – how can that be bad for performance?
And ultimately, there is not a bottomless pit for Grayling to dip into – indeed yesterday the justice secretary agreed to yet another 10% cut from his budget in 2015/16. That is roughly the equivalent of double the savings realised by cutting criminal and civil legal aid. It has to come from somewhere.
Instinctively I feel it is wrong to privatise the courts system, purely because they exist for justice, not profit.
I’m not naïve enough to think some private contractors will not cut corners or engage in bad practice. But opponents are in danger of seeming to blindly oppose any MoJ proposal purely because it emanates from Mr Grayling. If he’s wrong on this one, then prove it.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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