Ministry of Justice announces that 86 courts are set to close following consultation
Eighty six courts are set to close following a government consultation, the Ministry of Justice has announced.
Five courts have been given a reprieve following a consultation on proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales, announced by Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid in July last year.
Vara said any decision to close a court was not taken lightly: “It is on this basis that we have made a decision to close 86 court and tribunal buildings and retain five. 64 sites will close as proposed in the consultation, with a further 22 closures taking place but with changes to the original proposals. These changes, many suggested by respondents, include the establishment of suitable alternative venues, such as the use of local civic buildings; or different venues in the HM Courts & Tribunals Service estate to those originally proposed.”
The consultation followed an announcement in March 2014 by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and the Senior President of Tribunals of a programme of reform for the courts and tribunals.
The HM Courts & Tribunals Estate Strategy included plans to reduce the current and future cost of running the estate and reduce the reliance on buildings with poor facilities and to remove from the estate buildings that are difficult and expensive either to improve or to upgrade. In addition it aimed to improve the efficient use of the estate by seeking to improve whole system efficiency, taking advantage of modernised communication methods (Wi-Fi and video links) and adopting business processes to increase efficiency and effectiveness and increase the efficient use of the estate wherever possible irrespective of current administrative boundaries.
The programme has technology and the principle of proportionality at its heart and stated that straightforward, transactional matters (such as the administration of probate or pleading guilty to a minor offence and paying a fine) would be dealt with using digital technology to make the processes straightforward.
The programme aimed for Civil, Family and Tribunal hearing centres to move to a system where more cases can be resolved more quickly and efficiently without the need for a formal hearing. Technology would also be used to reduce the costs of the criminal justice system by not requiring prisoners to be transported to court for bail hearings, or the police to take full days away from work to sit in a courtroom.
The consultation proposed closure of:
- 57 magistrates’ courts
- 19 county courts
- Two crown courts
- Four tribunal hearing centres
- Nine combined courts
The consultation revealed that 56 of the 110 national responses were opposed to the closure proposals citing concerns around Access to Justice and accessing courts and concerns over the accuracy of the data in the consultation document and Impact Assessment.
Following the consultation, the Lord Chancellor has decided to retain St Helens County Court, Stockport Magistrates’ Court and County Court, West Cumbria Magistrates’ Court and County Court, Bath Magistrates’ Court, County Court and Family Court and Carmarthen Civil, Family, Tribunal and Probate Hearing Centre in Wales.
The MoJ said 64 sites will close as per the original consultation, however, a further 22 closures will also take place but with amendments to the original proposals.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “We are disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with the closure of so many courts. The majority of these closures will make it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.
“Combined with increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
“We welcome that five of the closures will not be going ahead and acknowledge that the government intends to make changes to its proposals for 22 courts following evidence submitted by our members. We look forward to continuing discussions about the revised proposals in these areas to ensure that access to justice problems are mitigated.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access legal advice and the justice system,” he concluded.
The consultation response is available here.