The random wanderings of an iPad playlist gave me Slow Train by Flanders and Swann one morning recently. “Slow Train” was written in July 1963, shortly after the publication of Dr Beeching’s first report The Reshaping of British Railways in March of that year. I would have first heard it not long afterwards on the large wooden radiogram with the gold-painted mesh front by which I spent much of my childhood.
Beeching’s report recommended the closure of 6,000 miles of railway line and 2,363 stations. It was seen (and still is by many) as a gross act of vandalism, a cultural affront as well as a practical one, changing the landscape as well as depriving whole regions of access to public transport.
In his spoken introduction, Michael Flanders said that the song:
…was suggested by all those marvellous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names, all due to be axed and done away with one by one, and these are stations which we will no longer be seeing when we aren’t able to travel any more on the slow train
Millers Dale for Tideswell – the first station mentioned in “Slow Train”
I got back to my desk to find that barrister Nigel Poole QC had published a variant, mourning the loss of courts to be closed by the Ministry of Justice. That same mixture of cultural loss and real practical disadvantage came through in Poole’s version and in the comment which followed the MOJ’s announcement, with barristers mourning the courts where they cut their teeth while wondering how justice would be delivered to those without transport who lived far from the surviving courts.
Here’s an example, by barrister Gordon Exall. Its title Civil justice: coming to a call centre near you neatly sums up the fears of those who care about justice as a “people business” and identifies some of the other flaws implicit in the proposed closures.
The Ministry of Justice is not known for the care taken in doing its research, its reforms done in a hurry, with no assessment of consequences, some blatant dishonesty and a rose-tinted view of the “improvements” which would follow. The preliminary announcement had said that no-one would be less than an hour away from a court; that was patently false. The promise of a brave new world of easy access to justice, helped by investment in electronic delivery of justice, brought hollow laughter from those who have seen previous Ministry of Justice initiatives founder on broken promises and incompetence.
In 1965 the new technology was the car which would enable everyone to travel anywhere. It just happened that Transport Minster Ernest Marples had his own reasons for wanting car use to grow – he was a founder of Marples Ridgeway, which, ah, built roads. The Attorney General required Marples to dispose of his shares in Marples Ridgeway to comply with ministerial rules on conflicts of interest; Marples sold them to his wife, on terms that he could have them back at the same price.
It was true that the railways were insupportable in their then state; over-expansion in the second half of the 19th Century, cut-throat competition, and under-investment especially in the war years, all contributed to mounting losses and out-dated infrastructure. In 1948 the Attlee government nationalised them, making them our problem. Ian Hislop’s excellent BBC film Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails turns up on iPlayer from time to time and is the best accessible history of the period; Hislop combines sentiment with a business-like analysis of the problem and the solution.
Parallels between rail closures and court closures
There are several parallels between the closure of the railways and the present round of court closures beyond the sadness implicit in Nigel Poole QC’s parody.
Both took a chain saw to something which merely needed pruning. Few would argue that the post-war railways could continue as they were, and few argue now (given our straitened times) against a review of the court estate. Society is paying for Beeching now and we will pay for the court closures for decades to come (literally, probably – the MOJ’s estates people are so stupidly incompetent that we are still paying rent and maintenance on courts closed in the last round).
Both were based on unsound premises. Beeching’s usage survey, for example, included weekends, inevitably (and deliberately) bringing down the apparent usage statistics. The MOJ has been criticised for everything from downright lies to “research” which amounted to a handful of unscientific enquiries; its own response to the closures consultation admits to several errors by which they misled us.
Neither took account of the impact on individuals, on communities or on wider and longer-term issues. The bus services promised as an alternative to trains were speedily withdrawn, and people had no option but to buy cars; that had short-term benefits of course, not least to the road-builders, the car-makers and the credit hire companies, but we know where it led in terms of traffic jams and pollution. We have come to regret the decline of public transport; we will regret the loss of accessible justice.
Both sets of decisions were founded on narrow mathematical models which made no sense in the real world. Beeching saw his remit as simply cutting costs quickly line by line and paid no heed to the consequential impact. The court closures (and, indeed, every other MoJ “reform”) has looked solely at pure cost without any other consideration; to take but one example, the near-removal of legal aid fills the courts with unrepresented litigants, extending hearing times and straining court resources to the detriment of all.
Every MOJ reaction tells the same story of haste. The former Permanent Secretary, Ursula Brennan, surely the most incompetent senior civil servant in recent years even if Lin Homer is taken into account, was questioned by the Public Accounts Committee on her research into knock-on effects of the reforms; she stonewalled every one by saying that it was so “urgent” to cut costs that there was no time to investigate consequences. The polished question-ducker Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the MOJ, repeated the same story of urgency when questioned in Parliament a few days ago.
What level of systemic incompetence makes it “urgent” to dismantle a country’s court system like this?
Both offered the lure of a technology-led alternative. The rise of the motor car was seen as a benefit and, indeed, few would have argued with that as they piled, liberated from timetables, into their Ford Cortinas and Vauxhall Vivas. It took 50 years for the worst flaws to appear. I am an enthusiast for technology; I do not doubt that we should have a court system in which electronic systems have a major role for back-office functions, for distributing documents and appointments, and for certain types of hearing.
We know before we start, however, that the MOJ will cock it up; we also know that the courts will disappear before the new technology is rolled out, let alone tested. Testing implies more than just working as a technical matter, in a country where the civil servants are clueless and where the inadequacy of broadband and mobile comms is a given. New procedures are required to accommodate the technology, and they should be seen to work before the old infrastructure is pulled down. It won’t happen like that.
If you want detail about the railway closures, the Wikipedia article here is both detailed and balanced. If you want to see the gulf between MOJ pronouncements and reality, follow a few solicitors and barristers on Twitter – not the big players at the top of the commercial tree but the everyday practitioners whose work keeps the justice system afloat. That same source will show you the furious frustration of those who have to deal with the existing roll-out of technology in criminal trials and compare it with the smooth pronouncements of the senior CPS management.
Where will it all end?
We know where the railways ended up. Though it was no part of Beeching’s plan, the railways were privatised, with the infrastructure in the hands of the wholly useless Network Rail and the service franchises handed to greedy shysters by the incompetent pen-pushers of the Department of Transport.
Court services have already gone down the same route. I have no point of principle against outsourcing government functions, but some of the companies grabbing the contracts – G4S is the most obvious example – have business models which depend on slashing costs without regard to the surviving service level. G4S remains under investigation for fraud in the management of one of its MOJ contracts, and yet idle and compliant civil servants keep handing them business which they are unwilling or unable to supervise properly.
Gordon Exall raised the spectre of justice by call centre; we already have medical advice given by barely-trained operatives in call centres, so his prediction is probably a sound one.
We see lawyers – bright, committed, trained, insured, regulated – replaced by amateur “Mackenzie Friends” while barristers leave the profession and publicly-funded advice centres close.
We have judges retiring early, undervalued and overworked, while the next-generation-but-one is driven from the profession.
What alternative for court users
Beeching failed. The costs of running the railways continued to rise. Without local stations, both passengers and, crucially, freight, took to the roads, and once on the road, why switch to the train? At least they had an alternative. Where will court users turn as the people and the physical infrastructure of justice are destroyed?
Postscript: Ernest Marples and Chris Grayling
Ernest Marples was a wide boy. His career was not without lasting achievements and he had charm, but he never quite fitted into Macmillan’s gentlemanly government. He never held office again after Macmillan lost office. He came under close investigation by the Inland Revenue for a number of irregular financial dealings and fled the country one night with such possessions as he could carry.
Chris Grayling was the original architect of the decline of justice and the prime mover in the handing out of contracts to the likes of G4S. He was demoted in the last reshuffle; much of his reform agenda has already been undone by his successor and he will leave no legacy. He is entirely charmless and it seems unlikely that he will ever hold high office again. Former cabinet ministers can usually find lucrative work after politics – competence doesn’t matter if you have charm; Grayling has neither. Although cleared of expenses irregularities by the spineless Parliamentary authorities, Grayling carries the stench of an attitude to expenses which ordinary people find repellant.
Marples died in exile in France before the fraud allegations against him were proved.