Responding to the government's announcement that 86 courts will close in England and Wales, 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.'
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had consulted on proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals, which is one fifth of courts and tribunals across England and Wales, and integrate or merge 31 more.
Responding to the consultation, the Law Society reflected solicitors' views on the likely adverse impact of the proposed closures on local communities, the justice system and the legal profession. We opposed the closure of 59 of the 91 courts and tribunals on which the MoJ consulted.
Our main concerns are:
1. Access to justice
It will be more difficult for many people, victims, witnesses and defendants, to get to a court or tribunal where closures go ahead. To ensure equal access to justice, we should all be able to get to a local court within a reasonable time and without incurring unreasonable expense. All of the closures will result in court users travelling further, at greater cost.
The government closures rely on travel to court by car, but many people will have to use public transport which in many cases is circuitous and expensive.
Solicitors told us that many of the travel times stated in the MoJ consultation were misleading and did not take sufficient account of local geography or transport infrastructure, particularly in rural areas where services may run infrequently and may not be direct.
2. Impact on court users
The increased travel time to alternative courts would have an adverse economic and logistical impact on a range of people who use the courts: the public, the judiciary, jurors, HM Courts and Tribunals Service staff and the prison and probation services.
Many of the courts the MoJ is closing have a much higher than average volume of work and our members told us that there are already long waiting times, backlogs of work and trials delayed or postponed as a result. It is unclear how the alternative courts, many of them already busy, will handle the extra workload.
3. Use of technology
Part of the rationale for the closures is that better use of technology can improve the court service and reduce the need for in-person hearings. The Law Society agrees that a modernised court service and efficient use of technology would benefit all court users. However, these facilities are not yet in place across all courts nor in the alternative venues. It would be better to modernise the courts with new technology, assess how it is working and then consider savings, rather than the other way round.
The Law Society is concerned about the lack of transparency and reported errors in the information provided in the MoJ's impact assessment.
Neither the consultation paper nor the impact assessment set out the criteria used to identify the courts and tribunals being closed or consolidated. The algorithm used to calculate travel times is no longer available to the public, having been taken offline in 2014. The MoJ declined a Law Society request for further information.
Solicitors pointed out a worrying number of factual errors in the consultation document. For instance, there were miscalculations on the current usage of some courts and an over-estimation of the capacity of alternative courts to take an additional workload.
In other cases the MoJ included what we believe to be inaccurate information about court facilities, for instance claiming a court proposed for closure does not have technology when in fact the technology has been installed.
Using alternative public buildings for court proceedings is untested. Solicitors expressed a range of concerns, including security and whether there would be adequate, appropriate facilities such as video link, witness/defendant segregation and interview rooms in public buildings. These facilities would need to be installed, at a cost. We do not understand why the MoJ is closing purpose-built courts and using public buildings that, in many cases, have inferior facilities.
Law Society press office: 020 7320 5764