Survey finds courts in cash crisis

THE MAGISTRATES courts service is burdened by a mounting crisis in funding and morale.

The conclusion comes from a survey by The Lawyer, timed to coincide with the latest Public Expenditure Survey (PES) settlement figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Analysis of the PES figures reveals a staggering £16.8 million cut over two years.

The Lawyer found over 90 per cent of Magistrates Courts Committees (MCCs) surveyed were under financial pressure, with nearly all pursuing cost-cutting measures, 38 per cent substantially (see page 11).

Almost half said substantial cuts were likely without a significant increase in this year's PES allocation budget.

Justices' chief executives (JCEs) say the cash-limiting formula used to distribute cash to their MCCs is flawed, leaving some cash-starved and others having to return overpayments to the LCD.

The out-turn, the settlement minus returned overpayments, is in fact a diminishing baseline for the following year's PES.

The LCD said last week's £265.5 million allocation for 1996/97 was “an increase of nearly 2.5 per cent on the estimated out-turn for the current year”. That is already below the 3.5 per cent inflation average for the year, the second year running for funding increases below inflation.

But the most revealing amounts are the PES settlement figures given to the service every December after the budget. These are: £267.9 million for 1994-95, £260.1 million for 1995-96, and now £265.6 million for 1996-97.

JCE Michael Heap, a funding specialist, calculated that with compound inflation over the past two years running at 6.24 per cent as a percentage increase in RPI, the service needed £284.7 million – another £16.8 million – for next year just to keep pace. “It's a substantial blow for the second year running,” said Heap.

David Baker, a Somerset JP and Magistrates Association treasurer, said: “We are reaching the stage where the budget cuts are having an impact on the level of courts' service. It's reaching magistrates' execution of their duties.”

Paul Boateng MP, Labour legal spokesman, said the survey showed “crisis in morale and funding in the magistrates courts service which raises serious questions for the proper administrations of justice”.

He said: “Increased responsibilities with diminished resources represents a familiar and deadly strategy of the undermining of public services. This Government has the MCCs in its sights for centralisation and privatisation.”

Roger Ede, secretary of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said JCEs' concerns reflected those in 1991 over fewer adjournments, time pressures on advocates in court, equivocal pleas treated as guilty, overloading of court listing and cost cutting.

“We told the Home Office then of our concerns and were assured that none of these things would happen,” said Ede.