Court Funding. Is the Government courting disaster?

All is not well in Her Majesty's magistrates courts.

According to a survey by the The Lawyer – the first of its kind – many are strapped for cash and face spiralling spending cuts which may soon damage their judicial service.

Overwhelmingly, they have no confidence in the Government on funding matters.

The Lawyer surveyed opinions from 32 justices' chief executives (JCEs), the new rank of staff created to head the Magistrates Courts Committees (MCCs), which run the courts.

The survey suggested that, like sailors in a leaking ship, staff running the service have spent years dutifully pumping out sea water to keep afloat, while anticipating an ominous tidal wave of financial difficulty that many think will swamp the decks, possibly by next year.

More than 90 per cent of MCCs responding to the survey said they were under financial pressure. Of those, 93 per cent were hit by cost-cutting, with budgets typically down by around 5 per cent. This, according to more than 34 per cent of them, is eroding their service to users, severely so, for almost 7 per cent.

More than a quarter have made redundancies among both qualified and non-qualified staff. Among 29 respondents, around 200 job cuts have been made recently and more are expected to follow. Morale, unsurprisingly, is poor.

While the same 93 per cent anticipate further cuts next year, 48 per cent expect “much more severe cost-cutting” than in previous years.

Bedfordshire's JCE, Michael Tildesley, said his courts committee was told it faced an eight per cent reduction in its £3.25 million budget.

“It's pushing us below the cost needed to maintain the service,” he said. The general concern about job cuts among justices' clerks to finance the newly-required JCE posts “compromises the principle of independent legal advice to lay magistrates,” he added.

Even the few who said they had not so far felt a cash squeeze at all said they “anticipated problems” next year.

Hampshire JCE Mike West predicted a £0.5 million cut on last year's £7.8 million. His MCC has closed six out of 15 court houses since 1991, and axed at least 33 jobs.

Another MCC in Hertfordshire had £300,000 cut from a £5 million budget this year.

Worsening service causes low morale according to 33 per cent of respondents. It also leads to increased management difficulties (36.6 per cent).

Eric Packer, chair of the Standing Conference of Justices' Chief Executives and Clerks to MCCs, said he was “particularly concerned at the extremely low morale” shown in The Lawyer survey.

“Lower morale could totally erode MCCs' power to deliver under the Police and Magistrates Court Act.”

But while under-funding is challenging, the longer-term effect threatens to seriously undermine the service and therefore the process of justice, according to those who run it.

Peter Lydiate, JCE at Brent and secretary of the standing conference, said the “Treasury-driven” cash-limiting system of funding MCCs is “provoking a culture change” in the magistracy. By gearing annual funding in part to the speed and volume of case completion, courts are being encouraged to relegate the delivery of justice to financial expediency.

Lydiate said: “The unfortunate outcome could be that magistrates don't spend enough time deliberating in cases to get the right result, as they are feeling the pressure to complete the case as quickly as possible.”

Magistrates could end up sentencing at a lower tariff or fining at a lower level to expedite both hearings and fine payment, said Lydiate.

He said: “Defence lawyers could suffer by not having enough time in court, which may be less sympathetic to adjournment applications. Prosecutors face the same danger, where they need time to get more information from the police, or to review the case.”

And as a result the Crown Prosecution Service may face greater pressure to discontinue cases. “This is quite frightening, but it's difficult to prove it's happening,” Lydiate said.

But the situation also questions the present Government's attitude towards funding.

A startling 96.5 per cent of those claiming a cash squeeze said they were either “not confident” (65.5 per cent) or “undecided” (31 per cent) over the Government's “intention to adequately fund the magistrates' service”.

Only 3.4 per cent remained “confident” in its policy.

The JCEs are currently made up of justices' clerks promoted under the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994. They are determined to voice their concerns about the diktats from central Government.

Their concerns stem from several factors. The first is the “cash-limiting formula” system introduced in 1991.

JCEs' complaints are varied, but they all felt the current system was poor. The two main grievances were that it distributed funds erratically and hindered strategic planning.

Clive Williams, clerk to Berkshire MCC, said of the formula: “We want stability so we can plan sensibly. At present, we have a system where we can be £400,000 underspent one year, and 18 months later find savings of £300,000.”

The formula continues to be under review, says the LCD.

The second factor is the annual budget set by the Lord Chancellor's Department out of the public expenditure round.

MCCs are already reeling from an £8 million cut in last year's budget, according to the Justices' Clerks Society.

For April 1995-1996, MCCs funding saw an actual 2.93 per cent cash cut on the previous year's £290 million, representing a larger shortfall once inflation has been accounted for.

This year's budget is no better. A rise of just under 2.5 per cent is on offer, based on the “out-turn” of £259.1 million. The out-turn is the money spent by all MCCs, minus any unspent extra returned to the LCD. In this case, it was £7 million from a budget of £266 million.

The cash-limiting formula distributes cash erratically so that some MCCs get more than needed while others go hungry, and those with surplus return it to the LCD. The effect is “a recipe for spiralling down, year on year” of MCCs' total funding, said Lydiate.

Another problem is the host of reforms and additional duties imposed on the service by the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994 without, it is claimed, the money to implement them.

There are great fears over the future of locally managed, independent lay magistracy, despite the Government shelving proposals to centralise the service.

In The Lawyer questionnaire, 65.4 per cent believed that either the Government would replace MCCs with a central agency (34.4 per cent) or were unsure (31 per cent).

Only 31 per cent believed the Government's intention to let MCCs remain. A national agency would “dilute effectiveness” compared with local management, and worse, would allow central Government more control over magistrates courts, said some respondents.

This reflects anecdotal views that MCCs are “being set up to fail” by being subjected to financial pressures and burdened with new responsibilities.

The latest of these, the transfer of police duties for the enforcement of fines and court orders scheduled for next April, may be the subject of judicial review.

Survey respondents stressed their fear over funding these extra functions. One said the idea was “disastrous, and I doubt the legitimacy of it”.

That legitimacy could soon be tested.