Justice cuts to be 50% more than first thought

19 October 2010 by

Updated x 2full details of review below |  The much-heralded Ministry of Justice budget cuts will be announced shortly as part of the government spending review. Previously, it had been reported that the department’s budget would be cut by around 20%, or £2bn (see our post). However, over the weekend the Observer reported that the cut would be much larger, running to £3bn – around 30% of the total budget – which represents a 50% increase on the original figure.

The justice minister Ken Clarke is believed to have had to take an extra hit “after the defence secretary, Liam Fox, and Michael Gove at education won more generous agreements than previously expected“.

As to where the cuts will come from, the article reveals little new information. The first major area is legal aid, on which £887.1m was spent in 2008/9 alone. It was already widely expected that public funding would be slashed in divorce and family law cases; the head of the Family Division predicted as much recently when he said “you do not need a crystal ball to see that legal aid for private law proceedings is likely to be further diminished if not abolished”. Legal aid will be hit in other areas too:

Government insiders confirmed that the legal aid budget was a big target and that funds would be limited to the most deserving cases. It is understood that ministers intend to limit the amount of legal aid to people going through complex marital disputes and divorce cases. Immigration and medical negligence cases could also be targeted.

The MoJ may argue that some of the impact will be mitigated by the divorce courts becoming more streamlined and cheaper. The Times reported this morning that the divorce court system will be revolutionised as part of a Whitehall review, with the role of lawyers to be reduced to a bare minimum and mediation becoming compulsory as a first step. David Norgrove, who is chairing the review, said the system is under “tremendous strain“.

Mediation has been presented as a cure-all before, notably in the 1999 civil justice reforms. But compulsory pre-court mediation needs willing parties, or it will be reduced to parties spending more money going through the motions in order that they can get into court. And mediation does not necessarily mean “lawyer-free”. Family legal aid providers have also made clear that they will not accept the cuts without a fight, and the Law Society recently won a judicial review of the Legal Service Commission’s legal aid tendering process. This victory may be short-lived, however, and the future is even less clear given that the LSC itself will soon be abolished and its functions absorbed into the Ministry of Justice.

A second source of cuts will be prisons. According to the leaked documents which the Observer has obtained, by 2014 more than £200m of savings will be found from sentencing reforms that are likely to see fewer short-term prison sentences with thousands diverted into community-based punishments. This is again unsurprising. As I posted here, the prison service is the Ministry of Justice’s second largest expense, costing around £2bn per year. And the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has made no secret of his ambition to cut prison numbers. Not all agree with this approach, however: the Civitas thinktank recently argued that increasing prison numbers would in fact save money. Even if Civitas is right, its argument is based on an holistic approach to crime prevention which the current department by department approach to cuts would probably mitigate against.

A third area mentioned by the Observer is the closing of county and magistrates courts. This has been known about for months now, and in fact the savings will only amount to a tiny fraction of the overall bill. So, realistically, it will be legal aid, prisons and MoJ staff salaries which will see the largest cuts, as was always obvious given that these outgoings amount for a huge proportion of the total MoJ budget.

So, bad news if you are planning on getting divorced and would have qualified for legal aid, and potentially worse news if you are an MoJ staff member. For those who are thinking about committing lower level crimes, the news may be better, given that you may not have to go to prison after all.

It was already hard to imagine a 20% cut; it is even more difficult to see how the overburdened UK justice system will survive a reduction in size by a third. It is to be hoped that the legal aid slack will be picked up by charities, no-win-no-fee agreements, lawyers acting pro-bono and a justice system which is made easier to understand and less expensive to use. But this will require some seriously creative solutions from the ‘big’ society, and it is possible that many will suffer in the meantime.

Update, 19 Oct 2010: Channel 4 News say that 14,000 jobs will go at the MoJ

Update, 20 Oct 2010: Full details of the spending review can be found on the Treasury website here. The full review is here, and the figures for the Ministry of Justice can be found on page 10: total 23% reduction over 4 years. The Law Society Gazette’s analysis is that justice spending will fall to £7bn from £9.5bn over four years:

Osborne said the MoJ will seek to make savings by reform of sentencing, improving the treatment given to mentally disordered offenders and through the increased use of public/private sector initiatives to reduce re-offending.

There will, he said, be reform to the criminal justice system, the closure of ‘underused’ courts and a reduction in the legal aid bill. He said the Law Officers Department – comprising the Offices of the Attorney General and Solicitor General – will see a 24% reduction to its budget, and stressed that the Crown Prosecution Service will be required to ‘greatly’ reduce its ‘inflated cost base’.

He said there needed to be access to justice but at a ‘fair cost’ to the tax payer.

The Ministry of Justice have also released a statement, which is reproduced by the Law Society Gazette:

The Ministry of Justice is beginning a programme of radical change. By 2015 we will have fundamentally reformed the way in which we provide justice. That work has already begun and in the coming months we will:

  • Launch a consultation on proposals to reform the legal aid system;
  • Publish a green paper on sentencing and rehabilitation;
  • Announce the outcome of the consultation on the closure of 157 under-utilised courts; and
  • Increase our transparency by publishing data on our performance and spending.

‘The department will manage its reductions by undertaking a challenging reform programme; transforming the department so it is more efficient and generates significant savings in order to allow resources to be focussed on key priorities, by:

  • Saving £1bn from administration and frontline efficiency, including a one third reduction in administration – our largest single saving;
  • The courts and tribunals system will be brought together in a single agency to ensure justice is delivered efficiently;
  • We are reducing our central London estate from eighteen buildings to four, saving £40m;
  • We will reduce and reorganise our arm’s length bodies to ensure services are being provided in the most efficient way;
  • A shared services model will be rolled out across the whole department making use of existing assets, capability and best practice;
  • We will reduce spending on courts and legal aid by developing and increasing awareness of access to alternative ways to resolve disputes; and
  • Plans for a 1,500 place new-for-old prison will be deferred to the next spending review period, while we develop a sustainable and cost effective prison capacity strategy. Spending on new IT and court projects will be limited to essential capacity.

‘By taking these tough decisions we will be able to punish and rehabilitate offenders more effectively, focus access to justice on those who need it most while cutting the costs of the justice system:

  • We will continue to lock up dangerous and serious offenders;
  • We will reform sentencing to rehabilitate offenders more effectively. The reforms will stabilise the prison population and then start to reduce it by 2014/15. We expect that by the end of the spending review period the number of prisoners will be around 3,000 lower than it is today;
  • We will increase the use of restorative justice and tough community penalties;
  • We will harness private sector expertise and innovation to make prisons places of hard work and purposeful training;
  • We will pay by results and use private sector investment as well as the voluntary and public sector experience to reduce
  • The government will take forward proposals to invest in mental health liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts, to divert mentally ill offenders and drug addicts into treatment;
  • We will consult on how to channel legal aid and related spend to the cases that most require it, saving £350m, subject to the outcome of consultation; and
  • Capital funding will be focused on maintaining the prison estate and funding essential new capacity and key invest to save projects.

‘The Ministry of Justice is also taking forward ideas suggested under the spending challenge, including reforms to:

  • Outline plans for changes to court business hours, including weekend and evening sessions, in the forthcoming magistrates courts business strategy. This will improve access to justice and make greater use of the court estate.

Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said: ‘We need to create a justice system that punishes the guilty, reduces re-offending, protects our liberties, and helps those most in need. Over the period of this spending settlement the Ministry of Justice will be transformed into a lean, transparent, and affordable department.’’


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1 comment;

  1. I have recently had my divorce and financial order completed by an online service. I was sceptical at first but must say the service provided was exemplary. The staff were professional and friendly and it took less time than some of my friends “amicable” divorces.

    Most divorce cases settle, which is a fact so if most cases can be mediated then surely these online services can finish the job, i.e the paperwork without the parties having to spend thousands on lawyers. Yes they can take their mediated agreements to lawyers to ensure that the settlement is fair, and pay for the advice, but they can then get the paperwork done online. I think this will be the way forward in the future and the Government knows this.

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