Reports this week are that the Ministry of Justice will have to find a further £249 million of savings this year as part of the fresh round in spending reduction.
It appears that this department is one of those facing proportionally the largest cuts. The Chancellor seeks a further £3 billion of savings this year. The Ministry of Justice Department is not protected.
The Ministry of Justice have indicated that cuts to legal aid do not form part of the package. It has also said that access to justice will not form part of the package of cuts but it is hard to see how it will not be affected.
If the reports are right, a £105 million will be saved by re-profiling certain capital projects and £144 million from re-negotiating contracts, reducing travel and overtime and restricting the consultants with the use of agency staff scrapped. Also included in this are “other efficiency measures” which do not appear to be specified.
Apparently, the Ministry of Justice’s spokesman has reported that the Department is “committed to playing its part” and “delivering significant savings to the taxpayers”. Personally I would prefer a more robust defence of this necessary department. I think many lawyers would doubt whether there are any cuts which can be made which will not have consequences for the legal system and its users.
The court service is run essentially on a shoestring to start with. One of the major courts in London where many claims are heard and progressed cannot provide an immediate telephone service to deal with queries. To find out what is happening with a file it is necessary first to telephone a helpline to arrange a suitable appointment for your telephone conversation at a later date. In other words you have to telephone to make a telephone appointment.
I do not know how many people staff the telephone line, but clearly not enough. Our solicitors report repeatedly that they tried to get in contact with the Court and find it almost impossible to even get through on the telephone hotline to book an appointment to discuss the problems with the claim by telephone. How is this access to justice?
As a firm, we can probably deal with the fact that our junior solicitors and trainees are telephoning the Court for hours on end. As an unrepresented litigant, you would not be able to deal with that problem effectively.
Access to justice is the first thing that is hit whenever there are significant cuts. Staff are shunted around to fit in with departmental vacancies despite perhaps not having relevant experience. Information technology doesn’t receive investment. Staffing numbers drop or are re-allocated to such a degree that no one quite understands what is happening, but we all know that the service isn’t improving.
There have been fundamental and significant changes in the way that the court service is run and organised in the last 5 years in particular. Where claim forms used to be issued at a local court, that is no longer a possibility except in emergencies. Everything is done by a central organisation which appears to be as inefficient as everything else in the court service.
For the uninitiated, it is a minefield of administrative chaos. For those who work in it, it must be very dispiriting. For the solicitors dealing with these problems it is frustrating, although it is not by any means a new phenomenon. For somebody who is seeking access to justice, it is desperate.
Since the new régime changed in terms of costs, many claimants have had to represent themselves and there has been an increase in unrepresented litigants in the last 5 years. For them to work their way round the system I think is asking too much.
In the High Court there are two dedicated Masters (judges who help to progress the case ) dealing with clinical negligence. I am waiting more than 8 months for a hearing I used to be able to attend within a couple of months of receiving the defence. There are reasons the system is backed up but clearly more dedicated clinical negligence Masters are required. How is it fair that my clients are delayed in litigation because the court is unable to deal?
The Ministry of Justice does not need to cut funds. The Ministry of Justice needs to invest in proper projects and appropriate staff both as judges and clerks paid properly who are able to be retained in the department and therefore gain some expertise. It is ultimately the staffing of an organisation which makes the difference to whether it provides a good service or bad.
Access to justice is a fundamental right and issue in this country. It has been continually attacked over many years and over the last 5 years has suffered a great deal. Legal aid cuts have meant that many people no longer have access to properly qualified lawyers to assist them. What we need is more investment in the court service, particularly because more lay people are having to take action themselves. We do not need cuts. We need investment. We need commitment to justice, not commitment to budget-cutting.