Solicitors sceptical as specialist court idea gets new lease of life
Specialist ‘problem-solving’ courts could be piloted in England and Wales, the government has confirmed – prompting scepticism among solicitors who say past experience suggests the project is doomed to fail.
Justice minister Caroline Dinenage (pictured) confirmed last week that a problem-solving courts working group, set up by the lord chancellor and lord chief justice, has submitted recommendations ‘which overwhelmingly support the case for these new courts’.
Dinenage told an event at the Royal Courts of Justice: ‘Over the coming months, together with the judiciary, we are going to develop our plans.’
Her announcement followed an address by Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the State of New York. Lippman explained that New York has hundreds of such courts, which address underlying causes of criminal behaviour to prevent repeat offending, especially in cases involving substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence.
‘We have learned that jailing certain types of offender does not produce good outcomes and ends up causing further harm to already struggling families and communities,’ he said.
This approach is thought to chime with the views of justice secretary Michael Gove, whose ambitious plans for prison reform were announced in last week’s Queen’s speech.
However, the development attracted a cool response from solicitors in Liverpool, where the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre closed in 2013 after eight years because of falling workloads and financial constraints.
The work and the principles underlying the court’s problem-solving approach were transferred to Sefton Magistrates’ Court.
Linskills senior partner Julian Linskill said: ‘It’s been tried, it has not worked and now they’re thinking of introducing it again.’
He said the news also presented a ‘contradictory’ situation in light of the ministry’s plans to close 86 courts. ‘On the left hand they’re contracting the court estate…on the right hand [they’re saying] “let’s extend courts now to cover community courts.’
Quinn Melville partner Zoe Gascoyne said problem-solving was a ‘great idea’ but could only work ‘where it is properly funded’.
She said: ‘It cannot happen when services like probation and other linked agencies have been and are being cut to the bone. Every court aims to rehabilitate offenders and reduce reoffending, and that should be done within the system as it stands now. It should not mean spending public funds on schemes that have previously failed on more than one occasion.’
However, Centre for Justice Innovation director Phil Bowen said North Liverpool community court should be seen in the context of a ‘bigger picture’. He said: ‘While the court did eventually close, important lessons were learnt and crime was reduced in the area.’
Dinenage told the event that the government and judiciary will ‘look at previous pilots in the UK’ when developing their plans.