It is very easy to become depressed at the constant round of news stories on Government spending cuts, actual or threatened.
While a lucky few departments have been given a measure of protection – in the process making the outlook all the bleaker for the rest – it was unfortunately all too predictable where some of the first announcements would be made. For example, legal aid spending in England & Wales, despite having been capped at about £2 billion for some years already, is set to face a further axe in ways yet to be finalised but which are almost certain to cause further problems in a sector that seems now to be in a permanent state of crisis.
Although in Scotland the equivalent budget is devolved and has so far escaped an actual cap, practitioners have still felt the effects of a severe ongoing squeeze, and the pressure can only increase when the effects of the Cadder case are factored in.
Yet it is often said that much of the additional demand on the system comes from Government tinkering via successive criminal justice measures, some no doubt designed to make the system more human rights compliant but many with a populist agenda. The charge may apply more south of the border, given the successive far-reaching procedural reforms in Scotland in recent years (Bonomy, McInnes – and Bowen to follow?), the effects of which on public finances, I believe, have been monitored since their implementation. But it would be good to have some indications that, rather than just preaching the mantra of efficiency and cuts, Government is taking an intelligent look across the board at how the money is being spent, and whether more radical reforms would help it go further while also improving the delivery of services, and in the legal sphere, of justice.
Here in Scotland, are we doing enough to promote this aim, given the volume of legislation passed by the Parliament in recent times? Is it not time to take a fresh look, say, at the requirements being imposed under the new liquor licensing laws? Is the new planning application system delivering? As for legislation from elsewhere, only today it is reported that local authorities are failing to provide the online single point of contact required under the EU Services Directive as a means of enabling businesses to set up or expand more simply. The councils claim it is an additional burden; but are they each trying to devise their own gateway or is there any common system or other pooling of resources being pursued in order to meet their obligations?
The new UK Government has asked for ideas for repealing laws where they impose undue restrictions on personal liberty. Perhaps promoting a simplification agenda in the same way would deliver benefits, to Government and to the governed.