The election really has begun in all but name, and justice already looks set to become of the biggest issues at the polls. Following George Osborne’s announcement on National Insurance, today the Conservatives are scheduled to announce plans for new local community courts on the “Swedish model” they are already pushing for schools.
A Labour spokesman has already responded, saying the plans are “wrong-headed and unfunded” but promising an urgent White Paper on “Local Justice for All” that will also include radical plans for decentralising justice, based on the results of in-depth consultations with “citizens’ juries”.
According to Whitehall insiders, these will allow anyone to set up a local court and receive direct funding from Whitehall. Private companies, faith groups and residents’ associations are expected to be the first to take advantage of the proposed scheme, which will allow the local courts to develop their own distinctive “ethos”. Initially bids will be invited for the 20 Magistrates’ Courts Jack Straw has announced will close as part of the Ministry of Justice’s cuts. Labour advisers are arguing that the courts should be subject to a stringent regime of targets, league tables and guidelines set by a new regulatory body, OfJust.
Under the Tory plan, the courts could attract private capital and enter into partnerships with commercial sponsors, for instance hosting courtrooms in popular shopping centres like Tesco. Tory strategists believe the new courts could crack down effectively on anti-social behaviour and help bring back the orderly Britain many believe has been lost since the 1960s. If they prove they can deal effectively with low-level crime, it’s understood they could be given further powers – though falling short of capital punishment.
Neither party can name any potential bidders at this stage, but Church of England sources have declined to comment on speculation that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been approached to front a multi-faith consortium with plans to develop modern, accessible and attractive Sharia courts in a number of English cities.
In addition, Labour is developing an idea for the trade union UNITE to take over the running of Employment Tribunals, saving millions of pounds for the public purse. It’s understood the Tories are considering a radical new proposal to tackle the deficit by auctioning off seats on juries to the highest bidder. It’s thought the foremanship of an Old Bailey murder trial could fetch up to £50,000.
The LibDems are working on their own distinctive scheme, backed by Simon Cowell, in which Lord Lester will chair a “Dragon’s Den” style panel of judges dispensing justice around the country. It’s hoped the idea, which will involve celebrity advocates coached by Clive Anderson, a TV audience voting on guilt and “Deal or No Deal” style plea-bargaining, will make law “accessible” and “cool”.
Full details of all the parties’ plans can be read here.