Where are we now in the ‘euphemism’ description game for the government’s £1bn court reform? I veer at the moment between pioneering (they might still do it), ambitious (they might not do it) and challenging (they probably won’t do it). Once we hit formidable we can abandon hope of it being recorded on time and on budget.
Notable throughout has been the support of the senior judiciary. Judges are, of course, not allowed to enter the political fray, but at times the backing for these changes (which surely have a political slant) has pushed these boundaries.
As the Ministry of Justice’s Richard Heaton told parliament earlier this month, one of the main architects of this programme has been the senior judiciary: the current Lord Chief Justice and his predecessor. Heaton added: 'They are with this absolutely every testing step of the way, because they are the safeguards of what is just and what is fair.’
At times it seems like the government says jump and the judges ask 'how high'?
You want to delegate our functions to court staff with as yet undefined legal experience? Be our guest.
You want to rely on the whims of technology to deliver justice? Sure thing.
You want to close our courts? Go ahead.
The reliance on the senior judiciary is clear, so the best advice now would be to keep them onside. Yet government policies are starting to chip away at this entente cordiale.
Take this week’s closure of the central unit set up to support family drug and alcohol courts. These are specialist courts pioneered by a district judge and a major development in family justice. Sir James Munby, outgoing president of the family division, said this September’s closure was ‘profoundly disturbing news’.
Last week in the House of Lords the government continued with its plans for civil servants and ministers to set low-level damages for whiplash compensation – effectively a land grab out of judicial hands. The vote was won, but judges lined up to register their disgruntlement.
Throw in the constant judicial bugbears of pay and pensions, litigants in person running amok and the government’s preponderance for acting unlawfully, and you have the potential to create a seriously peeved bench.
If the courts reform is to avoid moving towards the category of ‘knackered’, ongoing judicial support will be crucial. The backing appears unwavering at present, but the government would do well not to take that for granted.