Region by region HM Courts' Service is carrying out a Comprehensive Spending Review, following enormous cuts in the Ministry of Justice's budget announced late last year. In my region we have heard no more than a sketchy outline of ideas that may or may not be tried. The only thing that is certain is that the Government is skint, and knows it, and that the measures needed to get the justice budget into some kind of order will be radical and, hitherto, unthinkable.
I spoke to a sitting Bench Chairman from a Home Counties court today, and he told me that his court will be required to cut courtroom hours by about 30%. That is simply too much to soak up by redistributing work and tinkering with listings (even now if you plead not guilty in my court the trial is likely to take place in June; that can only get worse) which leads to the conclusion that the dramatic drop that is currently taking place in Mags' Court business due to increased out of court disposals is part of a plan to shrink the courts. Further, the introduction of ideas such as Virtual Courts (a video link from the police stations to JPs or a DJ sitting in a studio) will almost eliminate the need for Remand Courts, with the added advantage that a lot of defendants will succumb to the pressure of a quick guilty plea.
I have no idea of the detailed proposals for my Region (nor, so far, has HMCS, I suspect) but the financial shortfall is so massive that only really big cuts in basic services will be enough. Many courts will close (I have heard rumours of London being cut down from about 30 courts to 8) and benches will have to be merged. Local justice is a goner, I am afraid (it's moribund already) and more desperate measures to empty the prisons will be brought in, as there is no chance of any money to build new ones.
The joker in the pack is of course the election in the next year-and-a-bit, because far-reaching changes can't be pushed through all that quickly. Even if the Conservatives get in, they will be just as skint as the present lot.
It's hard to be optimistic, even for someone with my normally sunny disposition. Watch this space.
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