Headlines: June 7th, 2004

For the first time, all courts in England and Wales are to be run by a single body. The government-run Court Service and independently administered magistrates courts will be merged in a single executive agency to be known as Her Majesty’s Courts Service. The move ends the long-standing division between magistrates’ courts – run by 42 independent local committees – and the central body that was responsible for all Crown, County and Higher Courts except the House of Lords.The new organisation will come into being in April next year but from now it will operate in shadow form. The Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Lord Falconer, said the new HMCS would provide greater efficiency and consistency in practices, procedures, management and funding.The service will have 20,000 staff and work with 30,000 judges and magistrates – doubling the size of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Accountability to the local community will be an important element of the new service, which will work with 42 Courts Boards each of which will have local representatives. The Boards are designed to give local people a say in how courts operate. They will scrutinise, review and make recommendations about how local courts are run, including where they are sited.

Lord Falconer said a single national agency would allow more flexibility in the way services are provided by courts. It might mean, for instance, that courts in rural areas could be kept open through the sharing of buildings where it is currently too expensive to maintain separate buildings for different types of courts. The change was about more than just a new name for a new agency, he said, it was part of a wider programme to modernise and improve the justice system.