Sunday, October 25, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here?

We seem to be in the Phoney War phase of the economic crisis at the moment. With an election due next Spring at the latest most politicians are reluctant to draw our attention to the truly enormous hole in our public finances, and to the sacrifices that will be required to put matters right. I am no economist, but if you read around a bit you will find that even serious academics are running out of superlatives to describe the problems ahead. The truth is that nobody knows the real figures, but we do know that there will be a cut in the standard of living of most people, and that those people do not yet realise this.
I may be no economist, but I know a bit about the finances of the criminal justice system, and I also know a bit about politics; it is inescapable that the system will have to make savings on a massive and yet undreamt-of scale. We all have our little grumbles at the current niggling cuts in staff here and legal aid there, buildings left without maintenance, back-office functions moved to remote places, and the rest of it. But all of this will come nowhere near the required savings in a world in which justice will have to compete for funds with health, defence, pensions (above all, pensions) and all of the other services that the public now see as an entitlement without necessarily being willing to shell out for them. As someone recently said, if you offer people a choice between a new courthouse and keeping the Post Office open I don't think that many would vote for the court. We will have, in the old cliché, to think the unthinkable.
The justice budget is huge, encompassing as it does police, courts, prisons, probation, legal aid, the panoply of family courts and services for children, and much more. So where do we start? There won't be a lot of enthusiasm for big cutbacks in the police at a time when the terrorist threat has not gone away and a real depression could lead to public disorder. There are no votes in prisons, but there will be an outcry if some are closed and the inmates sent home. Probation is expensive, but cheaper than prison. We are always hearing about 'tough' community penalties, although many of us remain sceptical. Making them tough will cost money. Legal Aid is being squeezed all the time. As it is most people are not eligible, and leaving people to face the resources of the state and the skills of a barrister all on their own will cause serious injustice. But is that injustice more or less serious than cutting back on services for the elderly?
What about the courts? Small ones will be closed and sold off. Big court complexes offer economies of scale with services such as security, and it is easier to shift work between courtrooms to ensure maximum utilisation of expensive resources. But new complexes have to be built - they will cost money and will take at least five years to get going. Efforts will be made to push Crown Court work down the scale to magistrates' courts because the lower courts are far, far cheaper to run. More out of court disposals? Looks like a done deal, despite misgivings from magistrates lawyers and police. Are JPs cost effective? We don't get paid, as opposed to District Judges on about £100k a year, but we do need training travel and subsistence to be paid for. I suspect that the answer is that we are value for money, but perhaps not as cheap as we think.
Well what would you do? There are a lot of experienced people who comment on this blog and a lot of people in authority who read it. We know that maybe 20-25% needs to come off our budget. There are no right or wrong answers; this is about politics in the real world after 2010, whoever wins the election.

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