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Courts Service

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

22. What assessment she has made of the likely impact of changes in the Courts Service’s budget on the Government’s plans for the court system. (76562)

The courts are working to deliver the Government’s plans for the court system, particularly improving public safety and increasing public confidence through simpler, speedier justice. Like all public services, the courts are facing tight spending limits this year.

I declare a relevant interest as a solicitor. What is the hope for improved administration of justice in Enfield magistrates court when the north-west London region courts were told last month that, following the Lord Chancellor’s overestimate of legal aid savings, they need to find £2 million-worth of savings this financial year? Is that not good news for fine defaulters and compensation defaulters, and bad news for court users and victims?

We have to be sure that the Department as a whole lives within its financial spending limits, but within that we can improve the services that we provide. I believe that it is possible to meet both those aims.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had an opportunity to see the evidence of Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, to the Constitutional Affairs Committee? He says that any changes in the budget will dramatically affect his ability to bring down the current casework delay in the family division. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is very keen on modernising the Courts Service and that she has great ambitions to do so, but a cut in the budget that is not agreed with the judiciary will have serious implications for the delays that are still inherent in our family justice system.

We are all concerned that there should be no unnecessary delay in court processes, especially where children are involved. I have discussed the delays with the president of the family division and his fellow judges. One of our aims is to ensure that as many cases as possible do not come to court at all, but can be agreed outside it, as well as ensuring that cases that are brought to court are dealt with more swiftly.

We understand that the £80 million cut in the court budget this year could lead to a reduction of services and the loss of up to 1,300 jobs. Last week, the Minister of State revealed to me that the courts failed to collect some £282 million-worth of fines. Does not that debacle prove once again the Government’s inability to run public services, and the inability of Constitutional Affairs Ministers to run their own Department?

No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we inherited a position in which nearly half the fines imposed by the courts were not collected, a great deal of work has been done between the police and the courts across the country, and the collection rate has been increased to more than 80 per cent. That money goes to the Treasury, which I am sure is extremely pleased to receive it. The finances of the Courts Service are not what the hon. Gentleman said that they were. In fact, the courts did not spend the full amount that they thought that they would in the previous year. Perhaps, to help hon. Members to understand the exact position, I will place in the Library a copy of the permanent secretary’s letter to all court staff. That would enable hon. Members to see the financial situation, which is challenging, but not of the dimensions that the hon. Gentleman implied.

Further to the Government’s plans for the court system, will my right hon. and learned Friend say what plans she has for the family courts, especially in relation to ending their ability to send people to prison—for example, for contempt of court for breach of a contact order—without having a public hearing?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, which she has put to me in a written question, so I know what the answer is. Last year something like 200 people were sent to prison by the family courts, which happens in complete privacy and secrecy. The idea that people are sent to prison without any reports of the proceedings makes even more important the work that we are undertaking with the family courts, and with the important intervention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, to open them up so that they act in the public interest while maintaining personal privacy.