MPs have a tendency to go misty-eyed and reverential when one of the senior members of the judiciary appears before them.

I dare say I’d be the same, but their hushed tones at the justice committee ‘grilling’ of Lord Burnett and Sirs Ernest Ryder and Terence Etherton caused them to miss a trick.

Quite simply, in the face of gushing and unwavering support of modernisation from the three judges, someone should have asked this: When did you last set foot in a county court? When did you last grapple with a list of eight cases due to start at 10am? When did you last sit in a baking courtroom while lawyers and their clients wilted in front of you because the air con isn't working?

If they have been on the coalface recently and still been content, perhaps they're not looking closely enough. To give a message of unbridled positivity about the £1bn programme is doing the judges, magistrates, lawyers and litigants at the sharp end a disservice. Sir Terence Etherton may be 'unapologetically enthusiastic' about reform: the problem is many of his junior colleagues are not.

This is not about denying progress or obstructing modernisation. Goodness knows the courts system needs a healthy dose of both. There are huge benefits from allowing people to access justice remotely, or to start their case online. No-one is arguing that.

What sticks in the throat is the impression the government has put the cart before the horse. So much resource and effort is being drawn to technological advancement that the actual process of justice seems to have been left by the wayside. Lawyers tell me of courts in turmoil, phones unanswered, listings in a mess, buildings in a state of disrepair. The Association of District Judges reports that city centre courts cannot cope with the influx from regional courts closed in such a rush.

This matters more because the top judges, when not espousing the merits of change, were also keen to stress that physical justice will prevail. Users will always have the choice to do justice in person, and cases will not be resolved by email. So if we'll still need our courts, perhaps we should be taking better care of them?

Telling court users that reforms are working well is like a gardener telling you how lovely his tulips are going to look - when he hasn't finished doing the weeding. We like the intention, but you can't ignore the reality before you. 

The senior judiciary have been vocal about the crumbling state of our court estate in recent months, most recently during the lord chief justice's annual press conference

But the mistake that seems to be made is to disconnect practical problems with the modernisation project. Closures and centralisation may work in time, but they are causing frustration right now. Judges should recognise that, and recognise that their cheerleading cloaks the sincere concerns of court users.


It's not really the top judges' fault they are so upbeat. They see the changes at the highest level, they see the spreadsheets, the data projections, the potential outcomes. It probably does look brilliant from that vantage point. But it's a shame the committee didn't invite those down the food chain to appear. It's possible they might not share such unapologetic enthusiasm for modernity given their lift has probably been broken for three months.