EDITORIAL: Who pays for the courts’ facelift?

“Third world” and “a public disgrace” were some of the harsh – but fair – descriptions used by lawyers about the Commercial Court when The Lawyer polled their views last year.

Few in the legal community would begrudge a long overdue facelift for a court that handles multimillion-pound disputes between global corporations but resides in a dingy office block on Fetter Lane.
Last week the Government outlined a controversial £100m scheme to modernise and restructure the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ), including a new home for the Commercial Court and moves for the Family Court and the Central London County Court.

While a smartening up of the RCJ, and in particular the Commercial Court, is cause for celebration, there is to be no new public money earmarked for the project. Instead there will be a ‘three-tier’ approach to funding. This means it will be paid for in part by a private finance initiative (PFI), further hikes in court fees, plus any money saved by, for example, selling off St Dunstan’s House, the home of the Commercial Court.

It has not been a great time for legal PFI, and no doubt the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) is still red-faced over last week’s description by the public accounts committee of the Libra Project to upgrade IT in the magistrates’ courts as “one of the worst PFI deals that we have seen”. The project has more than doubled in cost to £400m in just four years, and magistrates’ courts still do not have proper IT.

But there will also be deep unhappiness about using court fees to revamp the courts. Ministers have long been supportive of the idea of recovering the full cost of running the court system from its users, and no doubt would be more than happy to expect them to pay for shiny new courts. Of course, there is an uncomfortable balance between recovering costs and providing access to justice. It was only last week that LawZone reported a Law Society survey that revealed one-third of solicitors felt that court fees deterred prospective clients from enforcing legal rights. (See “ Lack of court resources undermines Woolf reforms.“)

Of course, when it comes to refurbishments, it is not just the Commercial Court (with its economically important litigants) that is in urgent need of a spruce up. The Master of the Rolls Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers was recently reported to have complained that the civil justice system was in danger of “seizing up” because of a funding shortfall of millions of pounds. The budget allocation for modernising the courts fell “significantly short”, he told The Times in February. His Civil Justice Council (CJC) has already attacked the Government line on costs recovery as “wrong in principle and unfair in practice”.

“Whilst it is not wrong to require the citizen to pay court fees, access to the civil courts must be seen as providing a social and collective benefit, as well as service to the individual,” said the CJC. “Fees should be proportionate to the amount at stake.”