Thankfully, I am no longer practising, so I don’t have to spend swathes of my time enjoying the hospitality of our family courts (mostly waiting for hearings). I don’t therefore now have any first-hand experience of the delights that the courts have to offer. However, hardly a day seems to go by when I don’t hear adverse reports. The courts are dilapidated, overcrowded, slow, and more of them are closing all the time, putting greater pressure on the ones that remain (just last week new Justice Minister Lucy Frazer MP announced five consultations on proposals to close another eight courts). In short, the court system is in crisis, as Stowe Family Law Partner Graham Coy said here recently.
Against this background I read in The Guardian on Sunday that the Courts Service spent £50 million last year on agency and contract staff, a more than tenfold rise since 2010. My first thought was that this was just another sensationalist story created to make a headline. However, the figures are correct, having been obtained by shadow Lord Chancellor Richard Burgon MP (who, incidentally, is a solicitor, just like our new Lord Chancellor). He got them through a written parliamentary question answered by the said Lucy Frazer, also last week. The figures are actually contained in the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) annual report and accounts. According to those figures, in the financial year 2010-11 HMCTS spent £3.7 million on agency and contract staff, and that figure has risen consistently, standing at £50. 6 million in 2016-17.
So let’s get this right. In a time when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been suffering deep budget cuts (Mr Burgon claims that they are the deepest cuts of any government department), and when courts across the country have been closing on a regular basis, HMCTS has increased its spending on agency and contract staff ten times, by nearly £47 million? Surely, the closure of all those courts created a readily available pool of trained and experienced staff? Couldn’t they have been used to fill the gaps elsewhere? Or am I just being naïve?
In a written answer to another question from Mr Burgon, former Minister of State for Courts and Justice Dominic Raab said that the number of agency staff employed by HMCTS had increased from 270 in 2011 to 2005 in 2015, and explained:
“Agency staff numbers in HMCTS have increased since 2012 partly because of the reform programme and our workforce strategy to maintain appropriate levels of workforce flexibility. We expect the number of agency staff to significantly reduce as we implement the reform programme, redeploy staff, and recruit to vacancies arising from the new structure.”
In other words, it seems that the increase in agency and contract staff is (at least in part) just a temporary by-product of the on-going programme to reform and modernise the Courts Service.
Hmm. I’m not sure that I buy that. And I am not alone. For example, The Guardian quotes Law Society President Joe Egan as saying:
“The government is spending a great deal of public money making the court estate fit for 21st-century justice, but the absence of a strategy is all too evident. Every time a court is closed, further pressure is placed on those courts, personnel and judiciary that remain.”
Of course, only time will tell. It may be that, once the reform process is complete, we will indeed have a Courts Service that really is “fit for 21st-century justice”, but at the moment the impression is that there is no overall plan, with the MoJ and HMCTS lurching from one temporary fix to another.
If there was an overall plan, then why weren’t all of the courts that would be closed earmarked at the beginning of the reform process, after the last government came to power, rather than picked-off in piecemeal fashion? And surely it would have been possible to use existing staff to fill vacancies, rather than use agency and contract staff, who would surely require training, and would undoubtedly cost the Service considerably more, as is always the case with agency staff?
As I said, perhaps I am just being naïve, and hopefully my fears (and those of others) will prove to be misplaced. But if they are not then we could be witnessing the greatest example of mismanagement in the history of the Courts Service.