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November 23, 2018

Mice, broken lifts and buckets – the state of courts in England and Wales

Once upon a time there were lots of courts up and down the country and the magistrates’ courts were owned and maintained by local councils. Then, the Ministry of Justice had centralising tendencies and decided to take all magistrates’ courts away from the control of local government and local magistrates (who ran them via Magistrates’ Courts Committees) and have all courts run by civil servants from Whitehall. The 2003 Courts Act created HM Courts service, and Tribunals were later added in, to create HMCTS. The Lord Chief Justice this week said that the fabric of courts had been declining for ten years. That fits with the time magistrates’ courts were handed over from local management to central control.

This week there has been a cacophony of complaints about the state of our court buildings. Though poor @CEOofHMCTS has been getting regular complaints ever since she started tweeting. Here are a few recent ones (thanks to @PhilippaBudgen):

Worst I heard recently – a barrister who lost all his papers when the ceiling fell in. Wasn’t allowed back into court to collect them post evacuation (h&s for gd reasons) so lost all his prep & notes. He sadly told me it was last straw & he is giving up criminal justice work @chrismarriott6

Can I also add the mice at Swindon County Court? I arrived yesterday to be warned by Paul (the extremely helpful and hard working usher) to keep a look out for them @SBRBrackley

Having spent all day in Gloucester and Cheltenham County which has no heating and water pouring through the roof into buckets in the courtroom I can only conclude that @ceoofhmcts couldn’t care less @ZASaunders

Trial adjourned at Willesden mags this morning. One of the parties uses a wheelchair and the lift, out of use since last week, still hasn’t been repaired. No courtrooms on the ground floor; turned away from court. Deplorable @ceoofhmcts, what will be done?  @BarelyBarrister

Last winter i delivered an opening speech with a bucket on the bench next to me catching the rain water from the dripping roof. @greenlawyer

These stories are common on twitter, and must be even more so in real life. Senior Judges are sympathetic. Lady Justice Macur, the Senior Presiding Judge agreed that conditions are “scandalous – court estate cells sometimes have no heating” and she has had to order them to be closed. The Lord Chief Justice in his annual report wrote that “the public should not be expected to visit dilapidated buildings and neither is it reasonable to expect staff or judges to work in conditions which would not be tolerated elsewhere”, and partly blamed the dilapidation for the low morale of the judiciary.

In the same report the Lord Chief Justice also praised the digital court reform programme and reassured us that it will improve access to justice. But that same digital court reform programme explains why current courts haven’t been maintained. £1.1 billion is being spent on the reform programme. None of that money has been reserved for maintenance of existing courts – instead the reform budget only adds up if hundreds of courts are sold off. Presumably they calculated that most courts which needed money spending on them would be closed and replaced by virtual courts and online processes.

Such calculations have back-fired because the reform programme is way behind schedule, and the courts need the maintenance right now, before the digital replacements are ready. The Lord Chief Justice told the Justice Committee this week that hundreds of millions need to be spent on existing court buildings. Unfortunately the magic money tree is unlikely to be available for the courts. HMCTS (supported by the senior judiciary) asked the Treasury in 2015 for a capital grant to spend on digital court reform. I’m afraid the Treasury will now say “we gave you £810 million for the courts on the premise that you could create a more efficient, modern system, so why are you asking us for funds to prop up the old system?” So I expect to see many more photos of courts with dangerous plug sockets or broken chairs before the sunny uplands of digital court reform are climbable.