Lawyers criticise court “privatisation” proposals

The legal community has warned against the dangers of privatising the court system as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) denied it was planning to sell off courts to the private sector.

Yesterday (28 May) The Times reported that the MoJ intended to liberate the court system from Treasury control and make it a commercial enterprise, with courts being run by private companies. Such reforms could save up to £1bn a year in running and staff costs.

A spokesperson for the MoJ said: “We are not considering proposals for the wholesale privatisation of the courts service and there is no question of courts being handed over to private companies.”

We have always said we are determined to deliver a courts system that is more effective and efficient and provides improved services for victims and witnesses. The proposals being considered are not the wholesale privatisation of the courts service. We are committed to the firm, fair and independent administration of justice.”

On 26 March Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling released a statement announcing that administrative and cost efficency reforms for the court and tribunal service were under consideration.

Grayling’s statement said: “We need to look at the way we deliver our services to provide a more efficient service that delivers access to justice quickly and effectively, while delivering value for money for the taxpayer. At the same time, we must preserve the independence of the judiciary which lies at the heart of our constitutional arrangements.”

He went on to say that the reforms would seek to enhance the UK’s reputation as an international centre of litigation and dispute resolution, adding: “I also want to ensure that those who litigate in our courts pay their fair share, and that it is possible to raise the revenue and investment necessary to modernise the infrastructure and deliver a better and more flexible service to court users.”

Baker & McKenzie litigation partner Jeremy Winter said: “No one could object to the idea of improving the efficiency of the court service. However, I am sure that any privatisation involving the courts would immediately result in significantly higher court fees charged to litigants. This would reduce access to justice for the ordinary litigant, and is also likely to discourage foreign litigants from using the UK courts. Since the UK legal profession makes such a valuable and important contribution to UK exports, that is something that the Chancellor ought to be concerned to protect.”

20 Essex Street senior clerk Brian Lee, chair of the Institute of Barristers Clerks, said privatisation would pose a distinct risk to the credibility of what is currently a successful legal system.

“Will this new proposal change anything? And what do you do with some overseas business people who may not be as wealthy as others?How can the UK legal community sell itself to those emerging countries?” Lee asked.

“You cannot get away from the fact that the government has an obligation to provide a court system that is flexible, user friendly and meets the needs of those that use it whether they be domestic or overseas users. It seems that the whole system might be changed to save the government £1bn in relation to the provision of a criminal legal system, something that any decent society must provide.”

President of the London Solicitors Litigation Association Francesca Kaye agreed that greater efficencies were to be welcomed. She said she would particularly welcome the privatisiation of court buildings if infrastructure and IT were improved as a result.

But she added: “The privatisation of the court interpreters’ service has been a disaster – far from delivering improvements, we have seen ongoing failings and problems. Moving ‘problems’ to the private sector does not deliver automatic solutions.”

The court interpretation scheme was outsourced to a private company in late 2011, but a House of Commons inquiry was set up after a series of errors (20 July 2012)

The latest furore comes amid vociferous disapproval over legal aid cuts from all quarters of the legal profession. Last week hundreds of lawyers gathered outside the Houses of Parliament in solidarity against best-value tendering for criminal legal aid contracts and similar proposals to reform the legal aid system (28 May 2013).