Privatising the courts service is not on the government’s agenda, Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, told a free-market thinktank today.

Answering questions at a Policy Exchange event Privatising Justice: myths, threats, opportunities, Grayling was invited to state ‘quite categorically’ that there are no plans to privatise the courts service.

Earlier this month, senior judges attacked Ministry of Justice proposals to place courts on a ‘solid financial footing’ by charging wealthy litigants higher fees.

Grayling (pictured) said that current reforms are aimed at giving courts ‘more freedom to manage their real estate’ and costs. However he stressed: ‘Those operating the courts are not going to be privatised.’

Earlier, he defended his plan to contract out most of the probation service, saying the government had learned lessons from previous contracts to outsource offender services. Indicating that MoJ contractors G4S and Serco ‘are still subject to potential criminal proceedings’, he said, private contractors ‘can bring value to government but you can’t expect to play fast and loose with government and get away with it’.

Members of the National Association of Probation Officers are to strike on 31 March in protest against plans to privatise 70% of the probation service’s work. The union describes the plan as ‘a recklessly dangerous social experiment that presents massive risks to the safety of communities’.

Grayling denied that the contracts were driven by dogma or that the controversial principle of payment by results was too radical a step. ‘This is not rocket science, it’s basically performance-related pay.’ He said that the contracts would not necessarily go to the lowest bidder.

‘We’re not doing the contracting on the basis of price. First and foremost this is about social change.’ 

Challenged on the cuts to criminal legal aid, he said he had done his best to ‘sweeten the pill’ of budget cuts. 'I am disappointed that the bar feels I have not done enough. I have had constructive dialogue with the Law Society, I wish we had a more constructive dialogue with the bar.' 

Grayling denied that recruitments of advocates to the Public Defender Service (PDS) were aimed at replacing the independent bar.

'The PDS has been around since 2001, this is not a new creation. I have no desire for an institution to replace the independent bar with a supercharged public defender service.'