Our columnist Jesse Norman asked yesterday whether the market principle should have limits (he believes that it should), and if so where these should apply. Is it right to use shaven heads as cranial billboards, he asked, drawing on the work of Michael Sandel? Should better-off non-violent prisoners be able to buy themselves bigger and better prison cells? Should students be paid to do well in exams, or HIV-carrying mothers to have long-term contraception? He will presumably have dropped his marmalade spoon with a clatter at breakfast this morning when he saw the Times's splash headline: "Courts to be privatised in radical justice shake-up".
The essence of the paper's story is that Chris Grayling is considering two privatisation options: "hiving off court buildings to a private
company, which would run and maintain them, or a more radical proposal in
which the 20,000 courts staff would also transfer to the private sector". The Department denies planning "the wholesale privatisation of the courts service" in the Guardian, but the Justice Secretary clearly wants radical change. Funding for the courts would apparently "be generated by bigger fees from wealthy
litigants and private sector investment, with hedge funds encouraged to
invest by an attractive rate of return."
In other words – to borrow the example cited in the Times – Roman Abramovich would help to subsidise the criminal courts. The plan could apparently save the Justice Department £1billion a year, no small sum for Grayling to tuck into his negotiating brief during the present spending round haggling with the Treasury. The Justice Secretary apparently wants to proceed this autumn. The Courts could be put under a Royal Charter to guarantee their independence (thank you, Oliver Letwin, for making the idea topical). The more radical option would see all 20,000 court staff transfer to the private sector. The Law Society Gazette mulled options recently.
Grayling will doubtless be mole-hunting this morning, since the story is plainly a leak. But it's worth noting that two of the four critics of the plan quoted in the Times, Lords Falconer and Pannick, aren't against making more money for the courts from commercial users. So a compromise may emerge which is less dramatic than the story the paper carries. What's certain is that the Justice Secretary, with his plans for a more austere prison regime and more effective prison rehabiliation, is emerging as a bold reformer in austere times, not a safety-first secretary of state – as is Jeremy Hunt, who writes for us today about restoring the role of the family doctor.