17.Central government spending on criminal justice system has fallen by 26% since 2010–11, and the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) has agreed to reduce total spending by a further 15% by 2019–20. The Ministry considers that the criminal justice system is more efficient than it was, as it is delivering the same service, but for 26% less. The Ministry acknowledged, however, that the system could be much better and was in need of reform. HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) told us that over the course of the parliament its £1.7 billion budget, covering all aspects of the court service, will reduce by around 25%, and the staffing budget by 40%. The Ministry and HMCTS both made clear that they could not achieve any more efficiency savings simply by cutting budgets, the Ministry stated “we are not doing that and we can’t do that”. The Ministry and HMCTS told us that they plan to make these savings by investing £700 million to change the creaking system so it has better outcomes and runs better courts, for example making things work more effectively by investing in digital infrastructure.
18.We drew the Ministry’s attention to the volume of urgent requests that recorders (part-time judges) in the London and South East area are receiving to try criminal cases. The Ministry wrote to us after the evidence session to confirm that it last ran a competition to recruit recorders nationally in 2015 and, as a result, 16 criminal recorders were appointed for the London and South East circuit in January 2016. We asked HMCTS whether it has enough judges to sit in court to deal with all the cases it needs to, both generally and specifically for the London region. HMCTS explained that it decides on an allocation of “sitting days” (the number of days when judges sit in court to try cases) each year, and that these are distributed between the regions. This year 109,000 days of judicial time were allocated to trying cases in courts, which HMCTS told us is the highest it has ever been. HMCTS told us that it is filling all these days but agreed it was reliant on the good will of judges to do so. When pressed, HMCTS said that, in some areas of the country, it does have problems finding enough available members of the judiciary to try all the cases it needs.
19.The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told us that its budget has reduced by just over 20% since 2010–11. The CPS wrote to us after the evidence session to confirm that 2,322 of its 5,936 staff are lawyers (39%). The number of lawyers has fallen by 27% since March 2010, and the number of staff by 33% over the same period. The CPS also told us that there are fewer lawyers doing criminal law work than there used to be and this means it sometimes has difficulty finding counsel or that barristers, who were going to represent the prosecution in court, return cases to the CPS at the last minute.
20.HMCTS told us that it is working hard to bring down the number of outstanding cases in the system. HMCTS acknowledged that it did not respond as quickly as it should have done to the rise in the number of cases coming through the system from 2013 onwards and to the longer trials caused by a higher proportion of complex cases. This rise in demand occurred after the Ministry had cut resources, including the number of days that courts would sit to try criminal cases, in response to a drop in the number of cases between 2010–11 and 2012–13. Although the Ministry increased the number of “sitting days”, it took a year for this to take effect and the increase from 99,500 to 101,000 sitting days was not made until the end of 2013–14. The Ministry was unable to give a precise answer as to why it took so long to respond to the increasing demand on the system but suggested that it had perhaps failed to anticipate the lack of capacity or to make accurate forecasts of future demand. The Ministry accepted that the system needed to be much better. The Ministry told us that it has increased the number of Crown Court sitting days to reduce the numbers of outstanding cases and it will continue do so when backlogs are too high.
21.The Ministry and the CPS have ambitious proposals to reform the system. These include investing in digital technology, so that the system is less heavily paper-based, and developing a new digital case management system, which everyone will use to manage cases better and reduce delays, as well as rationalising the court estate and taking some cases out of court entirely.
22.HMCTS told us that it will take four years to deliver the planned reforms in full but that there will be improvements for court users in the meantime, as it plans to implement the programme in stages. HMCTS said that users are already benefitting from some changes to IT, for example all criminal courts now have Wi-Fi, widescreens and “Clickshare” technology, which allows parties to present evidence digitally. It is currently piloting further improvements, such as the ability to transfer information electronically from the CPS to the magistrate’s courts. It expects to provide iPads to magistrates across the county in the next six months and that defendants throughout the country will, within the next year, be able to enter guilty pleas online for traffic offences. The CPS said that it is working very closely with HMCTS on implementing the digital case management system, and is already seeing benefits in courts. The judiciary, the CPS and HMCTS are adopting the Better Case Management initiative in all Crown Courts. The CPS explained that this will encourage guilty pleas at an earlier stage, freeing up prosecutors to work on cases that will go to trial and thus making the system more efficient.
23.We have heard from Departments on numerous occasions about their ambitious plans to deliver improvements through big IT projects. In our experience, these projects often suffer from delays and cost overruns. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report included many examples of practical things the Ministry could change now to save time and money, that do not necessarily rely on the introduction of new technology or IT systems: for example police officers in Birmingham being able to make appointments with judges to obtain search warrants; or the weekly meetings held in Swansea Magistrates Court which focus on improving efficiency. We questioned HMCTS and the CPS as to why these local initiatives had not been introduced across the country already. HMCTS told us that it is currently evaluating the appointment system developed in Birmingham, and that it will introduce this everywhere if it decides it is working well.
24.The Ministry said that the courts reform programme was difficult and complex because of its scale, ambition, and timescale for delivery, and because it needed to bring together different elements for the programme to be a success. The Ministry explained that, for example, it was trying to change the way staff in HMCTS work from a predominantly paper-based system to one that used digital technology. Alongside this, it plans to rationalise the court estate. The Ministry believed that it will be possible to deliver the reform programme, although it recognised that this will be a difficult project.
25.We were interested to hear how the Ministry would achieve the cultural change necessary for the new system to work more effectively than the arrangements that are in place now. The Ministry told us that some pockets of the system can be resistant to change, and that it would need to change the way people behave to make the reforms a success. The Ministry told us that strong leadership, both in the judiciary and in HMCTS, and transparency would be the key to getting this right. It also told us that where it has piloted better ways of working, staff have been enthusiastic. For example, it has recently done work looking at the best approach to take for domestic abuse cases and staff are keen to use this to improve performance in this area. The Ministry believes that those working in the courts want to do a better job and that staff will be eager to spread good practice to make this happen.
26.HMCTS told us that making better use of the courts estate is a significant part of its plans to reform the courts and that it considers much of the current estate to be unsuitable for the new ways of working being introduced throughout the system. HMCTS assured us that there is enough capacity overall but explained that some of the 460 individual buildings are in a poor state of repair and others are very small, which makes it more difficult to reschedule cases when needed. HMCTS added that around a third of buildings are in use for less than half of the time they are open (between 10am and 4 pm). For example, Gloucester Magistrates Court, which will now be closed, was only used for approximately 16% of its available time in 2014–15.
27.In February 2016, HMCTS announced the results of a consultation on proposals to close a number of courts and tribunals in England and Wales, which had been running since July last year. It told us it has taken a number of tough decisions to close some courts, particularly those which are under-used or not fit for purpose. As part of its spending review settlement, HMCTS will be able to reinvest the proceeds from any court buildings that are sold in modernising the estate. HMCTS told us that it is aiming for an estate with a smaller number of bigger, more effective court buildings.
28.HMCTS told us it started developing a long term asset management plan to help prioritise investment just before Christmas and that it is currently recruiting a team of staff to work on this. HMCTS explained that it has a plan to dispose of the courts it is closing. It has valued all the buildings and has determined the best strategy for selling each building to maximise proceeds.
29.We asked HMCTS why it had spent £100,000 in the last year fitting brand new windows to Torquay Magistrates Court, which it is now planning to close, and whether it would avoid doing similar things in future. HMCTS told us that it had only decided to close Torquay as a result of the recent consultation exercise. It had continued to maintain the courts estate until then because it did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. However, HMCTS told us that it stopped spending money putting Wi-Fi and screens into courts that were on the preliminary list for closure until a final decision was made about which courts to close.
30.We asked HMCTS whether there was an argument for an estate of fewer, slightly bigger court buildings, to which the Chief Executive answered “Yes, and that is exactly what I am trying to do in the court reform programme. That is exactly our plan”. HMCTS told us that, in the family courts, it has replaced several small hearing rooms in East London with a family justice centre. This has given staff more flexibility in scheduling hearings when there are cancellations and means hearings can go ahead if a case proves more complex than expected as all district judges and magistrates are located in the same place. HMCTS wrote to us after the evidence session to explain that courts in this facility were in use for 69.6% of the available time in the six months to September 2015, compared to a national average of 48.8% for civil and family courts. The Ministry said that fewer, larger court centres would bring benefits for victims and witnesses as it will mean more trials going ahead as planned, and fewer adjournments. We questioned HMCTS about a letter received from a constituent who lives in a rural area with very limited public transport, raising concerns about how they would travel to court for jury service. The constituent said they asked the court if they could travel by taxi but were told that they would have to ask the question on the first day of service at the court itself and no advice was offered on how the individual should get to court to ask the question about travel options in person. The Ministry was unable to provide an answer as to how the constituent could get to court for jury service but hoped that the Courts service would be able to offer advice on transport and what expenses are payable.
31.In the March budget, the Chancellor announced that new powers over the criminal justice system will be transferred to Manchester. When asked what this would mean in practice, the Ministry explained that Manchester had asked the government for a package of measures on devolution, of which some were related to criminal justice. The measures would include, for example, working with the HMCTS on provision of court buildings and working with the Prison Service on education in prisons. The Ministry acknowledged that “there is quite a lot of detail to be worked out”. The Ministry told us that there was a similar announcement for Lincolnshire. Although there were no plans to extend devolution beyond these two regions currently, the Ministry told us it would be open to proposals from other areas.
32.We pressed the Ministry and HMCTS for more clarity on what devolution might mean in practice. The Ministry and HMCTS assured us that they will remain accountable to Parliament for the court service. They told us that the main aim of the approach to devolution is to retain a national criminal justice system but to be responsive to local needs, for example different patterns of offending, and to encourage more local input on areas, such as the type of rehabilitation provision. For the courts specifically, HMCTS explained that the deal announced in the budget aims to encourage stronger involvement of local communities in decisions about the location, opening hours and use of court buildings but HMCTS will retain overall responsibility for running and staffing the facilities. The justice that happens inside the courts will remain the responsibility of the judiciary, who are constitutionally independent of government and this will not be devolved.
33.We questioned the Ministry as to how the devolution of powers would fit with existing working arrangements and responsibilities. For example, there are already many bodies with different organisational structures involved in delivering criminal justice in Lincolnshire, including an elected mayor, two different police and crime commissioners and two chief constables. HMCTS told us that it has seven regions, which roughly match up to those of the CPS. In contrast, there are 43 police forces in England and Wales. HMCTS said that it spends lots of time managing working relationships, for example in Kent where the regional head of crime has to work with several different police forces. The Ministry agreed that it needed to manage the risks involved in dealing with multiple organisations carefully, particularly where it may not be clear which of several stakeholders is responsible for a particular issue. The Ministry told us that devolution deals will not be the same everywhere, and may involve different authorities in different areas. It did not want its devolution approach to make regional confusion worse, or to lead to different standards of criminal justice being in place in similar locations, and it was for this reason that it was important that some aspects of criminal justice were done on a national basis.
34.The March budget also included an announcement that, by the middle of this Parliament, the Ministry will have a major programme to create substantial centres of expertise outside the capital. The Ministry said that, in general, it wants to employ more people outside central London. It had, for example, set up a commercial team in Leeds which had helped reduce costs. It would retain several hundred jobs in the capital which cannot be done elsewhere and would make the vacant space in its headquarters building available for other government tenants. The Ministry told us it had not signed any leases on buildings outside London and could not make specific links between the Greater Manchester devolution deal and relocating London-based staff. However, it was talking to the mayor of Greater Manchester on the possibility of transferring personnel on offender management. HMCTS explained that, as a national organisation, it already had staff based in Manchester and that is does not expect to transfer any more business functions as a result of devolution.
52 , para 1.6
58 Ministry of Justice and HMCTS
63 , Crown Prosecution Service
65 Ministry of Justice and HMCTS
68 , , para 12
72 , para 3.12–3.13
77 Ministry of Justice and HMCTS
83 Ministry of Justice and HMCTS
23 May 2016