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May 15, 2015

Unintended consequences of court reform?

Its a cliche to say that government works in silos, but true nonetheless.  And those silos are within departments as well as between them.  In justice HMCTS (which runs the courts) is a silo, as is NOMS (which runs prisons and probation).  The divisions run deep and differing priorities can cause problems even within departments. HMCTS has long been tasked with saving money through speeding up justice and closing courts.  I’ve often wondered whether anyone has checked whether the measures to speed cases up are in fact costing more than they save.   In the case of remand, I’m pretty sure that might be so.  There is pressure on judges to make a speedy decision as to whether someone should get bail or get remanded in custody.  Judges have to act on the information they have, but often there is very little.  So, being cautious, they often remand in custody while more information is obtained.  The bill for remand is not paid by the courts but by NOMS, so the court gets its saving in terms of a quick process, but NOMS pays a huge bill warehousing people while information is obtained.  A high proportion of those remanded are freed before their trial/sentence as a result of new information and many never receive a custodial sentence.  So maybe slowing down the justice process in the case of remand would actually save money for the whole system, even if it cost more for the court itself.

The same goes for appeals to sentence.  A paper Transform Justice published suggested that the barriers to appealing a sentence were high.  New criminal court charges have been introduced so it will now cost £150 extra if your appeal is dismissed, on top of the £1000 charged to go to trial in the magistrates’ courts.  This will definitely put people off appealing their sentence.  Yet most people who previously appealed their sentence had that sentence reduced – so the costs of implementing that sentence were also reduced.  I suspect that appeals were previously cost neutral, but may even have saved money for the public purse through saving probation and prison costs.  Now appeals to sentence will collapse, to the detriment of justice.  The court system will save money, but the public purse as a whole will not, and they may even lose.

Slow justice will always be more expensive for the courts, but has anyone ever costed the total cost to the public purse of speeding up justice and disincentivising appeals?