Spotlight on courts

The new Courts Services agency and its first head Michael Huebner, according to the agency's corporate plan, face the twin challenges of improving quality of service while closing the gap between civil business income and expenditure.

But the programme for the agency is the standard government model of more efficiency through more cuts. Huebner says he intends to cut out the bureaucratic structure. But the plan sees performance improving by "centralising, standardising and simplifying administrative procedures". There is the obligatory homage to the "full use of new technology".

IT is long overdue in courts, but it is no magic wand. The reality is a staff cut of ten per cent, so more is to be extracted from those remaining. Court users will take a lot of convincing that this is the way to improve services in an already overstretched service.

On the civil side, court users face more squeezes. The court service annual running costs will jump from u229 million in 1994/5 to u376 million in 1996/7, as the agency is saddled with the costs of agency and court accommodation charges, while non-running costs rise from u113 million to u187 million in the same period. Civil fee income will leap from u225 million to u300 million by 1997/8, with 'pay-by-day' court fees of perhaps u500.

This, absurdly, is seen as part of the policy of reducing the share of national resources consumed by the public sector. It may shift some of the burden from the taxpayer to the court user, but the public share increases regardless unless taxes reduce. The squeeze is also put on judges as backlogs increase and extra sittings are demanded.

More is expected of them both before and during trials and greater demands will come as a result of Lord Woolf's findings. Huebner is to be commended for his bravery in exchanging the shadows of the LCD for the glare of the agency.

It is not just the agency's and the courts' performance which will be scrutinised.