Michael Gove has indicated he will close down courts that are underused rather than make further cuts to legal aid.
In his first speech since being appointed justice secretary, Gove said the government wanted to reduce dependence on an "ageing and ailing court estate" which costs around one third of the entire Courts and Tribunals budget.
"Inevitably, that means looking again at the court estate. It is still the case that many of our courts stand idle for days and weeks on end. Last year over a third of courts and tribunals sat for less than 50% of their available hours (10am – 4pm). At a time when every government department has to find savings it makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system." he said.
Cuts to legal aid over the last five years led to fierce arguments between lawyers and the government. Cherie Blair, a judge and barrister, told Sky News on Sunday that it was now "very difficult" for young lawyers to make a living
Speaking at the Legatum Institute in central-London, Gove said the Ministry of Justice's reform programme would "liberate tens of thousands of individuals from injustice and free hundreds of thousands of hours of professional time".
"Online solutions and telephone and video hearings can make justice easier to access and reduce the need for long – and often multiple – journeys to court," he said.
"I have heard too many accounts of cases derailed by the late arrival of prisoners, broken video links or missing paperwork. I have seen both prosecution and defence barristers in a case that touched on an individual’s most precious rights acknowledge that each had only received the massive bundles in front of them hours before and – through no fault of their own – were very far from being able to make the best case possible.
"And thinking of those huge bundles, those snowdrifts of paper held in place by delicate pink ribbons, indeed thinking of the mounds of paper forming palisades around the hard-pressed staff who try to bring some sense and order to the administration of justice, it is impossible not to wonder what century our courts are in.
"Were Mr Tulkinghorn to step from the pages of Bleak House or Mr Jaggers to be transported from the chapters of Great Expectations into a Crown Court today, they would find little had changed since Dickens satirised the tortuously slow progress of justice in Victorian times."
Gove targeted the "creaking and dysfunctional" justice system today and picked up on David Cameron's One Nation Conservative message. He said at present there were "two nations" in the justice system.
"On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.
"The people who are let down most badly by our justice system are those who must take part in it through no fault or desire of their own - victims and witnesses of crime, and children who have been neglected," Gove said.