GOVERNMENT plans for the Courts Service Next Steps Agency due for launch in April will result in a ten per cent reduction in numbers of court staff over three years.
It will also mean more court fee hikes and a cost-saving drive to close the widening shortfall in civil court income.
A copy of the Government's court service corporate plan leaked to The Lawyer shows that cost-cutting, rather than access to justice, is the prime consideration of the new agency.
"The Court Service has a responsibility to the taxpayer to obtain the best value from the money provided by Parliament each year," it says.
"These pressures on public expenditure, combined with the problem of rising costs and declining fee income, will make it even more important over the next three years for the Court Service to make the best use of its resources," it says.
The income shortfall rose from u53.4 million in 1993/94 to around u71 million for 1994/95, according to recent figures. This led to "widespread economies in the department," says the corporate plan.
The plan aims to "support the twin aims of reducing expenditure and maximising income" to counter the pressures, through centralisation, standardisation and better use of information technology. Staff numbers will be cut from the present 10,050 for 1994/95 to 8,996 in the year 1997/98.
National Union of Civil Servants (NUCPS) officer Azim Hajee says: "The basic drive is to cut expenditure. We have questioned the policy of full cost recovery, which can only mean a substantial increase in fees and therefore more people put off using the courts.
"The corporate plan looks at quite a substantial decrease in staff who already face unmanageable workloads."
Civil and Public Servants Association officer Eileen Turner says: "Obviously there is concern there will be compulsory redundancies and further court closures. We are also taking legal advice on whether the Lord Chancellor's Department has breached the law on consulting unions."
The NUCPS warned the LCD last week that court ushers were to be balloted for a work to rule action in protest at their extra workloads.
Suzanne Burn, Law Society litigation committee secretary, says the society already has many complaints about court staff shortages. "A fall of 1,000 seems quite a lot."
The plan will also "work towards recovering, through fee income, the full cost of the civil business of the courts; and aim to secure real term reductions in the unit cost of each of its principal business areas."