The UK court system is in need of urgent reforms such as using technology to streamline inefficient bureaucracies, Michael Gove will say on Tuesday, as he warns the current set-up is failing victims of crime.
In his first speech since being appointed justice secretary, Mr Gove will attempt to distance himself from his predecessor’s stringent cuts to legal aid by emphasising his focus on making sure the justice system meets the needs of the poorest in society, as well as the richest.
“There are two nations in our justice system at present,” he will tell an audience in central London. “While those with money can secure the finest legal provision in the world, the reality in our courts for many of our citizens is that the justice system is failing them, badly”.
Mr Gove will add that he has heard “too many accounts” of cases being derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork, and that both prosecution and defence barristers are often unable to make the best arguments because they have only received the “massive bundles” of case documents hours before hearings begin.
“We urgently need to reform our criminal courts,” the justice secretary will say. “We need to make sure prosecutions are brought more efficiently, unnecessary procedures are stripped out, information is exchanged by email or conference call rather than in a series of hearings, and evidence is served in a timely and effective way.”
In particular, he will encourage the swift implementation of proposals by Sir Brian Leveson to improve the courts system by allowing police to present video evidence gathered by cameras worn on the body, more flexible opening hours in magistrates’ courts to accommodate those who cannot attend hearings during office hours, and tighter case management by judges.
This year the Civil Justice Council also suggested a new system of online dispute resolution for low-value claims to avoid going to court.
Mr Gove’s sentiments will echo those of Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, who said on Monday that “wide-ranging reform” was needed within “the entire machinery” of the legal system.
Lord Thomas argued that IT could be used more extensively, and that “radical” change was needed to combat a reduction in government spending.
“Successive cuts to legal aid and the escalating costs of lawyers . . . put access to justice out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of the population,” he said. “Instead of technology being used merely to make the traditional ways of delivering more efficient, the technology needed to be used to devise new ways of delivering justice.”
Under the coalition government Chris Grayling, the Tory former justice secretary, imposed a series of legal aid cuts in both civil and criminal cases, which prompted marches of protest from barristers and solicitors.
Since the election, Mr Gove has avoided a further confrontation with barristers after he decided against cutting advocacy fees. Barristers had promised to take action in the event of a new round of cost savings; last year, they refused to accept new criminal cases in opposition to the changes. However, solicitors will be hit by further austerity measures.
Despite this rapprochement, Mr Gove has already put his stamp on the Ministry of Justice by shaking up the department’s board of independent directors. It emerged this month that all four existing non-executives are stepping down and Theodore Agnew, a Tory donor, has been appointed to one of the posts.