Friday, April 27, 2012

Yet More Unintended Consequences

I have blogged before about the Law of Unintended Consequences, an iron law with which Home Secretaries over the years have become very familiar.
It is the nature of the Civil Service, as we devotees of Sir Humphrey well know, that every Department has its pet schemes that are stifled by Ministers who smell political trouble, and that these schemes re-emerge every time that Ministers change. One such is the plan to have courts sit for different hours than the customary ten-till-five Monday to Friday. You can see the attraction - better use of expensive real-estate and potentially swifter judgments. The Blair sofa produced the ill-fated and costly experiment with night courts. A long while ago we ran courts in the early evening and on Saturday mornings to deal with volume business such as traffic cases, although the explosion in the use of fixed penalty tickets more or less removed the need, and the experiment fizzled out. Following the recent changes to the courts (Magistrates' Courts handle about 95% of the business) amalgamations and court closures have finally put paid to any idea of local justice, with long distances having to be travelled by all court users as well as judiciary and staff. It's bad enough in London, where distances are not vast but traffic can be really heavy;  out in the sticks, areas such as Wales have few courts, spaced far apart, linked by clogged rural roads. Get yourself nicked in Cornwall, and it's Bodmin or Truro for you, as well as for witnesses, clerks, CPS, probation, and defence lawyers and the rest.
The latest wheeze is to sit courts in Wales from 9 am to 1 pm, then with a different bench from 2 pm to 6 pm. The magistrates will have each four-hour slot counted as two half-day sittings, presumably to allow for travel time, so the minimum 26 half-days' sittings could be achieved by sitting for four hours 13 times a year- they won't get a lot of experience or build up much competence in that time.

The LoUC then kicks in with little problems such as:-
  • Two benches will double mileage and subsistence costs for all court users. 
  • Not every case fits into a four-hour slot
  • Legal advisers and court staff work a fixed week of (I think) 37 hours; there are too few of them to cover the new hours and no cash for any more.
  • Prisons, probation and other agencies work to tight time slots. If their Worships in the Llareggub Magistrates' Court send someone down at ten to six in the afternoon, the contractors are unlikely to get him to the nearest prison in time to avoid the evening lock-out.   
The MoJ is already starting to face the cost of all the travelling around required by the new system. I suspect that there will be second thoughts shortly about how much travel is unavoidably necessary.

Later: Here's an  interesting piece .

22 comments:

  1. Whilst discussion of this idea has appeared elsewhere, this summary is a wonderfully cogent analysis of the background, reasoning (sic) and implications of this daft scheme. Just what Bystander is best at (and what some of us wish he would stick to more of the time).

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  2. "the contractors are unlikely to get him to the nearest prison in time to avoid the evening lock-out. "

    Which means that they get lodged in Police Stations, which means the Police Station fills up quicker, which means new arrests get sent further away, which means the Police also spend time and money travelling to the further station to deal with the prisoners, and the contractors spend more collecting them to take to court, and they arrive later, so they're dealt with later, and they can't get to prison...da capo al fine.

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  3. The problem of travel isn't just confined to the Magistrates courts. The borough I work in has a number of Crown Courts but all the Crown Court trials originating from my police station are being sent to a Court about an hour's rail and bus and walking journey away. It's hard enough getting witnesses to court at the best of times but add in a lengthy and costly journey (you might get expenses back but you have to pay out first) and the vagaries of court scheduling and people are even more reluctant to turn up. Even the CPS has finally cottoned on to the fact that they are losing cases because witnesses and victims can't actually get to the court. They haven't done anything about it though !

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  4. Biker.

    What irks is that these were/are all foreseeable consequences, if only someone who actually a) knew about things and b) more importantly, was prepared to stick their neck out (which rules out career civil servants) had actually spoken out.

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  5. Possibly an oblique move by MoJ to get rid of lay magistrates. Highly centralised courts become 'centres of excellence', lay mags no longer quick enough to pack them through, move in the DJs.

    Perhaps we could go back to holding courts in taverns, the front room of Weatherspoons perhaps with the turnkey's wagon parked outside. Add some C18th clothing and you have a tourst attraction as well.


    rogerh

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    1. "Centres of Excrement" more likely.

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    2. Don't forget the picturesque stocks on the village green outside the pub.

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    3. Clearly a townie, TF. Few villages have pubs these days, and even fewer still on the green. Sadly.

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  6. To those valuable pieces of advice, "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is." and "There are no free lunches." we should perhaps add one for politicians; "If it's an obvious solution, it will almost certainly turn out to be a bad one."

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  7. As Biker says, the real trouble with the MoJ (and I dare say much of the rest of the civil service) is that none of them has had any experience of the real world that they become "responsible" for. Thus such schemes are dreamt up in a vacuum well away from any sense of reality, and without a moments thought to the real costs involved (hint: think wider about the effects).

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    1. Ed (not Bystander)29 April 2012 18:09

      Have you worked as a civil servant?

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    2. Biker.

      Is it not true that many of these schemes are not being dreamed up by civil servants, but rather by consultants who are even further distanced from the real world we all serve? (I have certainly seen more than a few consultation documents that have a strong McKinsey-esque whiff about them).

      I strongly suspect that civil servants who stick their neck out and actually point out the flaws in such proposals are labelled as not having a positive austerity-minded attitude.

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    3. Could not agree more

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    4. I AGREE THAT THERE IS A LACK OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT LOCAL JUSTICE. JUST REMEMBER, IN 1986 MUCH ACCLAIM WAS GIVEN TO THE NEED TO HAVE LOCAL JUSTICE. THEREAFTER, THE CLASH BETWEEN HIGHLY EXPENSIVE CIVIL SERVANT MANAGERS AND MORE HIGHLY PAID CLERKS TO THE JUSTICES ( REMEMBER THEM?)/ JUSTICES CHIEF EXECUTIVES LED TO A FIGHT, DRIVEN BY POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY AND NOT DRIVEN BY JUSTICE FOR THE COMMUNITY. BY THE TIME THE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE WORKS OUT THAT THE COST OF TRAVEL etc. FAR EXCEEDS THE COST OF LOCAL JUSTICE ( AS IT WAS ONCE) THEY'LL HAVE COME UP WITH SOME OTHER POLITICISED SCHEME TO DIMINISH THE TRUE VALUE OF LOCAL JUSTICE.... AND THEN WE HAVE THE POLITICISATION OF SENTENCING BY THE COURTS... THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.

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  8. SouthLondonJP30 April 2012 08:44

    Bizarrely I cannot see any comment from Biker but I can guess what it says from the additional comments.

    While I agree entirely with what has been said both by BS and the comments, I really have to ask yet again where the Magistrates' Association is in all of this. What is the point of having a 'trade union' if it does absolutely nothing for it's membership, nor for justice in general it seems. The Government clearly ignores it. T

    hose of us 'at the sharp end' who know that schemes like this are simply unworkable therefore have no effective collective voice. And more money is wasted in 'pilots' and the consultants (yes, I suspect it is consultants as well as ill informed civil servants) rub their hands in glee!

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    1. The MA has been vocal and forceful in its opposition, but doesn't make policy. More productively, it has lobbied astutely to avoid the worst excesses of neighbourhood justice panels and the like, and has achieved appreciable results, which it has been careful not to trumpet.

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  9. Sounds good in theory but the reality is quite different. There is a lot of preliminary work done before court and quite a bit after too. I can see an argument for Saturday morning courts , but not a night shift. I think the Nazi's had a bit of a thing for doing things during the night and frankly I can't see the need. The added costs and the total disruption are just not work it.

    On a different note I've just endured one of these virtual courts- what a farce- you can view about half a page at a time of what ever papers are available and you just can't make notes or mark up the papers. Another 'sounds good' but a shambles in practice

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  10. Biker

    Bizarrely I cannot see any comment from Biker

    That's because I am posting as Anonymous (haven't worked out this Select Profile business, and there has been no training from BS, presumably due to budget cuts). So I just put the word 'Biker' forlornly below the Anon. credit.

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    1. Just use the Name/URL profile. The URL can be empty.

      As in this post.

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    2. Oh yes!

      I feel so foolish.

      And it's only Monday...

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    3. SouthLondonJP30 April 2012 14:57

      Ah much better!! :-)

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    4. Don't let it worry you, Biker old chap. We are all friends here.

      Well, mostly........

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