The government has embarked on what could be years of parliamentary slogging to enable the £1bn modernisation of the courts and justice system.
The Courts and Tribunal (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill was given its first reading last month in the House of Lords, with justice ministers aiming to delegate ‘routine’ judicial decisions to legally-qualified court staff.
These reforms are expected to save almost £6m a year in net benefits, although courts chiefs have moved to assure the public the legislation is designed to help judges, not replace them.
Employees will take on tasks previously completed by the judiciary, such as case progression work and case management, in the crown courts, civil jurisdiction, family jurisdiction and tribunals.
HMCTS has indicated that the measure is the first of several bills required to push through a wider reform programme. These changes will ‘shift justice from slow, paper-based systems to streamlined, efficient digital services’ and are the ‘first step’ in legislation to modernise the system. More courts will ultimately close, judicial decisions be made online and where hearings do remain, many will be conducted through video link-ups.
Reform will be set to a backdrop of scepticism from some lawyers that clients will still be properly served outside of the traditional court environment. Sue James, a supervising solicitor from Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre who joined an impromptu protest outside the HMCTS reform roadshow in London last month, told the Gazette that court closures force housing clients to make unreasonable journeys.
‘We see clients on £31 a week – how do they travel to other parts of the country? People can’t afford to get there and ultimately they won’t go to hearings and they will end up losing their homes,’ she said. ‘Our clients would feel disconnected at a conference call. You can’t Skype in this area of justice.’