Courts braced for budget cuts

CASH-STRAPPED magistrates courts face severe cost-cutting, redundancies and consequent damage to their service, if this autumn's budget is as bad as predicted.

Members of the Justices' Clerks Society (JCS) say they have been tipped off by senior figures in the Lord Chancellor's Department about spending plans. They say reduced spending could add further problems to a service already reeling from last year's budget cut of more than £8 million.

David Chandler, JCS deputy vice-president, said: “If we face similar cuts next year, then solicitors and the public will notice a substantial diminution of the service. If we have to reduce staff further, that will lead to a reduction in the numbers of courts we can run.”

Cuts would hit courts' ability to process not guilty plea cases in particular, adversely affecting victims and witnesses.

Chandler's magistrates court committee (MCC) for Bradford needed £3.2 million last year to maintain services but received £185,000 less. Redundancies were staved off by an 8 per cent salary cut for 15 court clerks, and by slashing the training budget for magistrates.

Across the country, at least six justices' clerks have been made redundant this year and redundancies are expected to accelerate.

Pressure on MCCs is intensified by the introduction of reforms, with no extra funding, required under the Police and Magistrates Courts Act, said justices' clerk Michael Heap, who sat on the resources committee with the LCD last year.

Costly reforms included the new justices' chief executive posts for MCCs, of which a dozen have been appointed on £50-£60,000 salaries.

In last November's budget for the year April 1995-April 1996, MCC funding saw a 2.93 per cent cash cut, compared with the previous year's £290 million total – representing a much bigger shortfall once inflation is accounted for.

But Heap said the LCD then compounded difficulties by incorrectly applying elements of the cash-limiting formula, which relates to courts' performance, to certain MCCs. This produced budget cuts for certain MCCs “in excess of 4 per cent”.

David Wilkinson, treasurer of the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees, said: “If there's another real-term cut, there will be a cut in the services we can provide.”