U-turn on courts privatisation

PARTS of the courts service threatened with privatisation will be more secure after a Government U-turn due to political pressure from unions and senior judges.

New legislation, coming into effect only four months before the deadline for Next Steps Agency status for the court service, will block government attempts to market test and contract out areas of court work in the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD).

Graeme Watt, assistant secretary of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants (NUCPS), says: “We are pleased our campaign against contracting out of sensitive judicial functions has had results.”

Watts says: “The Government has had to recognise concerns – expressed not just by us but by Law Lords and MPs and even the Lord Chief Justice – for the independence of the judiciary and fears of possible abuse and conflict of interest if such work was privatised.”

The NUCPS says certain functions such as court listings, keeping of court records, clerks in the Crown and County Courts and court ushers, had all been “likely” areas for market testing.

However, the LCD denies there were plans to do this.

The legislation is Schedule 16 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act. According to a senior civil servant at the LCD who wishes to remain unidentified, Schedule 16 arose after long consultation between Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay and the senior judiciary as a result of their opposition to the bill.

Calling it a “carefully drafted, well-balanced provision,” the civil servant says the schedule recasts protection of sensitive functions from privatisation originally framed in Section 21 of the Courts Act 1971. It does not specify functions regarded as sensitive but defines them with a 'formula' – that is, functions involving eit-her judicial discretion or decision, giving advice or exercising powers of arrest.

In addition, the top judges – the Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls, the Vice Chancellor, and the President of the Family Division – have to be consulted on any proposals to privatise non-sensitive functions.

“We now have the flexibility to contract out work in the courts – although there are no plans to do so – provided it doesn't amount to judicial function,” says the civil servant.

But Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was involved in the Lords debates warns the schedule fails to ring-fence the court clerks who handle confidential information in the County Courts and District Registries.

“I personally think it is very important that they should remain in the public sector, where the ethos is to serve the public rather than make a profit,” says Lord Williams.