The biggest civil service trade union has criticised senior judges for becoming too closely involved in the government’s £1bn court modernisation programme, and HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) for misusing their support.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) said HMCTS was using backing from the senior judiciary “not only to justify their plans” but as a reason for not consulting the union over the impact on its members.
Responding to the justice select committee’s inquiry into the access to justice implications of the modernisation programme, the PCS said it was concerned by the way in which the senior judiciary were becoming “increasingly identified” with the project.
“We believe that the line between the executive and the judiciary is becoming blurred with the potential for what should be the fearless independence of the judiciary to be compromised.”
The PCS said that by March 2023 – the date for completion of the project following a recent one-year extension – HMCTS expected to employ 6,500 fewer full-time staff, reduce the number of cases held in physical courtrooms by 2.4m per year and annual spending by £265m.
The union said there was “no evidence” to support HMCTS’s claims that the modernisation programme was already providing a “more open and accessible” justice system.
Despite the introduction of online divorce, it said the average time from issue of petition to decree absolute in 2018 was 373 days, a 9% increase on 2017, with “unprecedented” levels of delays at the largest regional divorce centre, in Bury St Edmunds.
The PCS said online probate had “increased the time it takes for probate to be granted with the number of stops on digital applications at levels never seen with the paper process”.
The union said its members had reported the time taken had grown by up to 74%, but HMCTS refused to recognise the figures.
The response said the court modernisation programme would not “improve or even maintain” access to justice but continue a “worrying trend” towards a two-tier system – one for the rich and one for the poor.
“When HMCTS considers access to justice, it’s only the very narrow sense of an individual’s formal right to defend themselves or to commence proceedings, rather than the fundamental equality of opportunity and outcome.”
The PCS said it had consistently raised concerns about the impact of court closures and the centralisation of administration of justice in a small number of contact centres on female court staff with children and disabled staff.
“The Courts and Tribunals Service is creaking under unrelenting pressure caused by years of chronic underfunding and is largely held together by the goodwill of our members.
“The morale of an already dejected workforce, who have suffered under years of pay restraint, privatisation, court closures and who are now having to contend with the imposition of IT that is not fit for purpose will be damaged further by reform.
“These reforms mean a day-to-day working life of crisis management, stress management, fire-fighting and workarounds.
“During the recent IT crash staff were taking photos of bail notices and sending them to the police as a means of notifying bail conditions.”
Meanwhile, the Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill was unveiled in the House of Lords yesterday, so as to introduce necessary measures to facilitate court modernisation that were originally in the Prisons & Courts Bill that did not make it through Parliament because of the 2017 general election.
The bill will set up a committee chaired by a judge to develop simplified rules for online civil, family and tribunal proceedings.
Rules would have to be backed by a majority of the committee before being submitted to the Lord Chancellor for approval.
Lord Keen, the government’s justice spokesman in the Lords, said: “This bill will improve access to justice for all by providing clear and understandable rules to guide people through the many new digital processes we are introducing.”