Cuts to MoJ budget “have been exaggerated”

Philp: Court digitisation not a panacea

MPs and others are wrong to say that the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget has fallen by 40% since 2010, new justice minister Chris Philp said last week.

During a debate on the MoJ’s budget, MPs repeatedly referred to the statistic, as have lawyers and other campaigners in recent times.

But giving the MoJ’s response to the debate, Mr Philp said it was based on figures for the 2015 spending review.

“Since then, there has been additional resource spending on Ministry of Justice matters from a variety of sources, and when that spending is added back in, the real-terms reduction is 21%. That is still a reduction, but of a great deal less than 40%.

“To put that in context, the British crime survey, which produces the most reliable crime statistics… finds a 33% reduction in crime over the same period; that is significant, and we should bear it in mind.”

But he acknowledged there were “clearly issues with the way that various parts of our criminal justice system operate that need addressing”, and pointed out that the recent spending review promised a £511m increase in the MoJ’s budget to £8.1bn, a 4.9% increase in real terms. The capital budget has increased 48% to £620m.

Mr Philp said the MoJ was now working out where the money would be spent. He added: “I hope that the 2020 spending review can do a lot more for the Ministry of Justice and the various areas that it looks after.”

The debate was secured by Bob Neill, the Conservative chair of the justice select committee. He cautioned: “I understand the reasons behind the government’s desire to spend more money on catching criminals, recruiting more police officers and recruiting more staff in the justice system, but all those things flow down.

“The more we spend on policing, the more criminals we catch, which may not be a bad thing in itself, but that will have a knock-on effect on the court system that has to try those criminals, and then in due course on the probation service, which has suffered difficulties over recent years.”

Mr Neill said the additional money was “worthwhile, but it needs to be part of a much more holistic plan”.

He also expressed concern that “too much reliance is being placed on the introduction of technology” to improve the courts, “because it is ambitious and, frankly, governments of all shades do not have the best of track records on grand technological projects”.

He added: “I do not want it to be seen as the silver bullet, because it does not deal with the question of physical access to courts. Some 256 court facilities have closed over recent years.

“In some cases, that is understandable and legitimate, but we have to think very hard about how that enables vulnerable court users in particular to get to court.”

More broadly on the condition of the court estate, Mr Neill said: “We cannot expect to recruit quality people to serve in our judiciary if they have to work in those conditions. A number of surveys have indicated concern about judicial morale.

“The principal issue is that judges often do not feel valued, and the working conditions are part of that.

“Neither is it fair to expect practitioners to be able to advise people properly if they do not have proper facilities to have a conference and instead have to try to find a corner in what might be a crowded room.

“We need much more significant investment in the day-to-day bricks and mortar of our courts service.”

Mr Neill also criticised “the arbitrary measures taken by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to limit the number of sitting days”, saying many recorders were not being asked to sit even the minimum number of days they are required to sit under their contracts.

“To my mind, that is pretty serious mismanagement by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and I suspect our committee may wish to look at that further. That cannot be right. That is not big money; it is just about clever use of the assets and resources we already have.”

He pressed for the MoJ to put more money into legal aid to ensure early access to legal advice in criminal, civil and family matters, which he said “would not be a great cost in the overall scheme of things”.

The other MPs who spoke in the debate – in a largely deserted chamber – highlighted various areas where the extra money could be spent, such as prisons, probation, the courts and legal aid.

On the courts, Mr Philp agreed that digitisation was “not… a panacea. It is part of the solution, not the whole solution”.

There has been increasing focus in recent weeks about under-utilisation of the courts, and Mr Philp said: “As the minister with responsibility for courts rather than prisons, I will of course make the case for sitting days and for the maintenance programme in the court system as we go through the allocation process in the coming two or three months to divide up that half a billion pounds of extra money.”

On legal aid, he said: “I am pleased to remind the House that last year the rates for criminal barristers were increased by around 10%—that was a £23m commitment—and, as members said, the criminal legal aid review is under way.

“In fact, some parts of that review, because they are so urgent, will report early: the parts related to unused material, cracked trials, paper hearing cases, pre-charge advice and payments for sending cases to the Crown Court will report next month. The rest of the review will report in the summer of next year.”

In his plea for more legal aid funding, Conservative Alex Chalk, a former criminal law barrister, said: “I want to take this opportunity… to pay tribute to all those lawyers up and down the country who give of their time to speak truth to power, to redress grievances and to do so entirely free of charge. They really do heroic work.

“It is unfashionable in this place to pay tribute to lawyers, but those who work pro bono are some of the best in our society.”

He said: “The total budget for legal aid is at or around £1.7bn, and I want to conclude by putting that figure into some context. To the Syrian crisis alone the UK will be giving—in a gesture that is no doubt entirely appropriate and that entirely speaks of our humane and responsible nature as a nation—something like £2.7bn.

“That may be entirely appropriate, but we should not neglect the legal aid budget.”

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