131.Staffing reductions are integral to the HMCTS reform programme. In 2014–15, HMCTS employed more than 17,000 FTE employees; this had fallen to around 16,000 by July 2019 and is expected to fall to 11,300 by the end of the reform programme. This represents a planned reduction of about one third. We considered what effect existing reductions in HMCTS staff numbers had had, and what might be expected when greater reductions take place during the next phase of the reform programme.
132.HMCTS staff reductions are happening as a consequence of court closures, as well as the introduction of Courts and Tribunals Service Centres, which centralise services to the public and administrative functions. HMCTS explained that some roles will no longer exist, while others will change—”typically becoming more skilled”. This would reflect “the efficiencies gained through new digital services either because work has been automated or removed (e.g. the sending of forms and papers; re-keying data between systems), or because there is less demand for that type of work (e.g. calls asking where a case is in the process).”
133.Many submissions to our inquiry expressed strong concerns about the impact of existing reductions in court staffing. These came from across the full range of stakeholders who responded to our call for evidence, including the judiciary, lawyers, court users and HMCTS staff themselves. There was consensus across experience in criminal, civil and family courts. We heard again and again about cuts leading to overworked staff and serious administrative problems. Typical complaints included:
The reduction in court staff has led to delays in hearings; telephones unanswered; missing files; administrative delays; and delays in billing.
The reductions in HMCTS staff [mean that]… many courts are simply overburdened. Paperwork is not dealt with expeditiously. Telephones are not answered. Files are lost and documents do not make their way to the judge in time for the hearing.
It was difficult if not impossible to get a reply from a simple telephone call made to a court or alternatively, even if emails were sent … they were routinely not being answered for five or more days. It would appear that any technology would be limited by insufficient staff being available to utilise it.
134.We were left in no doubt about the scale of the problems. Resolution gave many examples of lost files, unprocessed papers and long waits for correspondence replies. Three quarters of Resolution members responding to their survey said that the ability easily to access the right information in a reasonable timeframe from the court by email or telephone has got worse or much worse. The Chief Magistrate told us that “for a period of about a year the telephones were not being answered at Westminster Magistrates’ Court”. The Legal Committee of HM Council of District Judges was aware of one magistrates’ court where the administration staff often had over 500 unanswered emails in the general administration inbox.
135.We asked the HMCTS Chief Executive about performance indicators for answering telephone calls or replying to emails. She told us that the existing telephony system did not allow her to know how many calls had not been picked up in individual courts and tribunals. Some calls go through to the new Service Centres, where the average time to answer them in June 2019 was 8 mins 18 seconds; that month only three quarters of calls were answered at all. She did not provide information on email responses.
136.As well as very basic issues of being able to contact a court or service centre successfully, legal practitioners reported worrying difficulties when attending courts. For example, Gerwyn Wise from the Criminal Bar Association told us:
it is quite often the case, when you are doing a Crown court trial, that the judge is the only member of court staff in the room. The ushers and the court clerks have to cover multiple rooms and deal with multiple courts. When things are going well, it is fine, but when issues arise—for example, with digital cases, or CCTV and the like—it can lead to delays. Sometimes it is 15 minutes, but sometimes it is half a day.
137.The impact of staffing reductions on vulnerable groups was particularly worrying, including the effect on people facing the loss of their home. A solicitor working for Shelter stated: “I cannot stress enough how random and chaotic the whole thing is”. Shelter went on: “If we, as housing professionals, find it so difficult to communicate with the courts, we can only speculate what it is like for tenants, borrowers and other litigants in person.” The charity commented that the shortage of court staff meant that it was difficult to get updates about a case, which put people at risk of missing crucial deadlines and possibly losing their home.
138.Women’s Aid highlighted concerns about the effect of staffing reductions on survivors of domestic abuse, arguing that: “court staff are vital in organising special measures [to support and protect vulnerable people], so we feel that it will restrict access to justice if there are fewer staff.” Victim Support described how, owing to staff shortages, victims and witnesses struggled to find out practical information on the day of a hearing. They also pointed out that, without adequate levels of staffing, there was no one to enforce separate waiting areas for victims and defendants.
139.The inquiry found particular concerns about the “almost universal closure of public counters in court buildings”. Court users were now greeted by security rather than court staff, and were often left confused about where to go and what to do. This had a particular impact on those who cannot afford legal advice and are not eligible for legal aid.
140.Housing law practitioners told us about the importance of face-to-face support from court staff for frequently vulnerable clients. Diane Astin, an experienced housing solicitor, reported that the closure of public counters made it increasingly difficult to deal with emergency applications. She explained that tenants applying to have a warrant of possession set aside must apply to the court to prevent an eviction taking place before the date scheduled for eviction, after which the court’s discretion to set aside the warrant comes to an end. Previously, tenants could receive basic help from court staff in making this application, and the court would ensure that a hearing was listed prior to the date of the eviction. However, this is no longer possible because of the closure of the public counters. She concluded that “present levels of service are so poor that the courts are simply not accessible to unrepresented litigants”.
141.Susan Acland-Hood told us that HMCTS had put into place “other contact mechanisms that the piece of research we did before the court counters were closed suggested would work better for most people.” However, the centralisation of staff into Service Centres was not a well regarded development. As well as loss of face-to face contact, it was felt to sever valuable relationships with judges. In addition, there were worries that call centre staff lacked sufficient experience of courts to answer questions. The evidence was that engagement with staff, especially those who are well trained and familiar, was important. The engagement was not simply transactional: a friendly face puts court users at ease. From the perspective of the police—engagement with court staff on victim and witness issues could help ensure an effective hearing.
142.The Public and Commercial Services Union described the impact of HMCTS staff cuts and centralisation, stating that the “Courts and Tribunals Service is creaking under unrelenting pressure caused by years of chronic underfunding and is largely held together by the goodwill of our members.” The annual staff survey revealed some of the lowest staff engagement levels in the Civil Service: in October 2018, the engagement index was 49%, down four percentage points on 2017–18. This is nine percentage points lower than the Civil Service benchmark for operations with over 2,500 staff, and 13 points lower than the Civil Service benchmark. Strikingly, the greatest reduction in score was in Leadership and Managing Change, where the score was only 35%, down 8 points from the previous year.
143.We heard particular concerns about the employment of temporary agency staff. HMCTS currently has around 16,000 full time roles, of which 3,000 are filled by temporary or agency staff; the service intends to “keep a sizable float of flexible and temporary staff to minimise impact on permanent staff and provide scope for redeployment of existing staff”. The Chief Magistrate said: “The reduction in staff in some areas took place too quickly and the vacancies were filled with agency staff. This is still happening.”
144.The Senior President of Tribunals acknowledged a need to avoid over-reliance on agency staff, telling us that uncompetitive wages were an issue: “We lose some of our best staff—hence we have temporary staff—to other Government agencies. That is a crying shame. They are our most loyal investment in the service, and we would like to see something done about that.” Others concurred that staff remuneration was a problem, including the Association of HM District Judges who observed that court staff are paid “less than almost every other government department, they (and agency staff), often leave after a short period of time to take up appointment with another government department at a higher salary”.
145.Whether it is through planned reductions leading to vacancies or staff moving on to seek better pay and working conditions, the evidence suggested that reliance on agency staff was problematic. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre reported that, in October 2018, 70% of staff at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court were agency staff, with the following effects:
Colleagues who have had work transferred from the other courts to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch confirm that: files have been lost in the transfer; some hearings have not yet taken place more than a year later; the telephones are not answered; paperwork has been lost; bailiff warrants are still being executed despite warrants being suspended. The court is essentially in chaos.
146.Family law practitioners cited “huge cuts” to the number of HMCTS staff in Leeds, leading to the use of agency staff who are not “up to speed” with processes, leading to delays. The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges also sounded a warning: “The loss of HMCTS experienced staff is of considerable concern to us, as the Courts are increasingly reliant on agency staff who have little knowledge of how the Court works… All this contributes to delays and mistakes being made by inexperienced court staff which inevitably does impact upon access to justice.”
147.HMCTS staff reductions are mainly back-loaded—that is, they are scheduled to increase as the programme progresses. Referring to “huge reductions in staff numbers with more to come”, the Association of HM District Judges made a bleak prediction:
If the [HMCTS] service centres cannot cope and the back room staff at the courts are pared back to the bare minimum then chaos and complete inefficiency will ensue, with the effect of reduced access to efficient and timely justice.
148.Susan Acland-Hood from HMCTS told us that staff reductions have levelled off, “partly because we have very consciously been trying to make sure that we are managing and thinking about the changes we bring in.” She was also “looking to increase the front-of-office presence of people who can help you work out what you need to do in various ways.” The Lord Chief Justice appeared confident that HMCTS would make sure its staffing was sufficient. He agreed that it was vital for the courts and tribunals to be sufficiently staffed to support sittings and to provide necessary assistance to the judiciary and to the public and professionals court users.
We will … work with HMCTS to ensure that the courts have sufficient numbers of suitably trained staff so that the business of the courts is efficiently despatched and those who use the courts are treated with dignity and respect.
149.We received powerful evidence of a court system in administrative chaos, pointing to the harmful impact of staffing reductions on the experiences of victims, witnesses and legal practitioners as well as litigants and defendants. Staff shortages in many courts are so serious that they may undermine access to justice and threaten to compromise the fairness of proceedings.
151.Our evidence suggests that the move to centralised service centres is not fulfilling the needs of many court users, particularly the most disadvantaged. We are particularly concerned about the loss of public counters in civil courts. Sufficient staff should be based in court buildings to provide reassurance and expert, face-to-face guidance for court users.
152.Staff in courts are clearly overworked and under-remunerated. We are deeply concerned by HMCTS’s over-reliance on agency staff and the low morale rates indicated by its staff surveys. We recommend that HMCTS seek to retain existing experienced staff, through addressing problems of remuneration, workload and morale as a matter of urgency.
217 HMCTS Annual Report 2018–19, p83
218 HM Courts & Tribunals Service ()
220 There was less evidence available on tribunals, where the case officer system is in place. However, recent reports have indicated inadequate levels of staffing in the Employment Tribunal, where the number of applications has significantly gone up following the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees.
221 Deepa Veneik (), Ms Diane Astin (), Criminal Law Committee - Birmingham Law Society (), SHELTER () Dennis Fuller JP ()
222 Rhona Friedman, Sue James and Simon Mullings ()
223 Housing Law Practitioners Association ()
224 Manchester Law Society , Crown and Magistrates Committee ()
225 Resolution ()
226 Lady Emma Arbuthnot ()
227 Legal Committee of Her Majesty’s Council of District Judges (Magistrates’ Court) ()
229 , 31 July 2019. Figures relate to June 2019.
231 SHELTER ()
232 Victim Support ()
233 Mrs Jo King JP ()
234 LawWorks and LIPS Strategy (), SHELTER (), JUSTICE (), South London Law Society ()
235 Jo Edwards, Resolution (
236 Housing Law Practitioners Association ()
237 Ms Diane Astin ()
239 Mr Adam Taylor ()
240 Mrs Melanie Benn ()
241 [Frances Rudd QC, Family Law Bar Association], LawWorks and LIPS Strategy ()
242 [DCI Kirby, Thames Valley Police]
243 Public and Commercial Services union ()
244 The Engagement Index is the average positive responses to five key questions reflecting people’s personal attachment to HMCTS, striving in the work they do, and speaking positively about working here.
245 HMCTS Annual Report 2017–18, p81, 82
246 HM Courts & Tribunals Service ()
247 Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot ()
248 [Sir Ernest Ryder]
249 CTS00884. Similar comments were made by HH John Tanzer () and Public and Commercial Services Union ()
250 Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre ()
251 Leeds Law Society (); Yorkshire Union of Law Societies ()
252 The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges (ADJ) ()
253 The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges (ADJ) ()
256 Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales ()
Published: 31 October 2019