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June 7, 2013

Are courts inefficient?

I met an MP the other day and asked him whether he supported any kind of privatisation of the courts. He wasn’t sure but did say that courts were inefficient and chaotic and needed to change. It seems a common view in Parliament and it has some justification. In 2012 it took 139 days for the completion of a criminal case, 11 days before than than in 2010. When I sat as a magistrate I was horrified to turn away a trial (as we sometimes did), and all those who had waited all afternoon to take part, because we had run out of time. But when courts are blamed for inefficiency, its actually often beyond their control. If the Crown Prosecution Service has not disclosed evidence in time to the defence or if the defendant doesn’t turn up, the court staff can do little. The government appears to be considering making the courts administration more independent of government, as a way of saving money and presumably increasing efficiency. But I’m not convinced this will help. A radical idea might be to give courts service case managers teeth – to give them responsibility to make sure everyone turns up at the right time prepared for the hearing. They would need to be able to mete out some kind of rewards for compliance or sanctions for poor performance. Or maybe a judge should do this? Alternatively maybe the answer is localism. When services are localised, local staff can see savings and efficiencies and act to make a difference. Local authorities have taken savage cuts unhappily but creatively. If power to run magistrates’ courts were devolved to PCCs, local authorities or local boards, accountability would be devolved too.