The Law Society today responded to a Ministry of Justice consultation 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.
Our response reflects solicitors' views on the likely adverse impact of the proposed closures on local communities, the justice system and the legal profession.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers commented:
'A majority of these proposed court closures will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court, and the closures will more adversely affect people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.
'Combined with the further planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
'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.'
We have produced an interactive map that shows the impact the proposed closures would have on local people, as told to us by solicitors who serve their local communities.
The Law Society's concerns fall into five main areas:
1. Access to justice
It will be more difficult for many people, victims, witnesses and defendants, to get to a court or tribunal if the proposed 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 proposed closures set out in the consultation paper will result in court users travelling further, at greater cost.
The government proposals rely on travel to court by car, but many people will have to use public transport which in many cases is circuitous and expensive. For instance, a return journey from Aylesbury where the court is up for closure, to the proposed alternative, Milton Keynes, costs £71.30, takes over 2.5 hours each way and involves two changes.
Solicitors told us that many of the travel times stated in the Ministry of Justice proposals are misleading and do 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 proposed alternative courts would have an adverse economic and logistical impact on a range of people who use the courts: the judiciary, jurors, HM Courts and Tribunals Service staff and the prison and probation services.
Many of the courts the Ministry of Justice is proposing to close have a much higher than average volume of work and our members tell us that there are already long waiting times, backlogs of work and trials delayed or postponed as a result. It is unclear how the proposed alternative courts, many of them already busy, will handle the extra workload.
3. Use of technology
Part of the rationale for the proposed 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 proposed 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.
4. Legal aid contracts
The Law Society is concerned that the court closures will lead to our members being unable to meet the requirements of the legal aid contracts through no fault of their own. This could leave people who qualify for legal aid unable to access legal advice in some areas.
Legal aid solicitors bid for contracts based on the geography of the existing courts and some fear they will be financially unable to fulfil their contract if courts close in their region. In these cases some solicitors told us they will withdraw their tenders altogether.
The Law Society is concerned about the lack of transparency and reported errors in the information provided in the Ministry of Justice's impact assessment.
Neither the consultation paper nor the impact assessment sets out the criteria used to identify the courts and tribunals proposed for closure or consolidation. The algorithm used to calculate travel times is no longer available to the public, having been taken offline in 2014. The Ministry of Justice declined a Law Society request for further information.
Solicitors pointed out a worrying number of factual errors in the consultation document. For instance, that there are miscalculations on the current usage of some courts and an over-estimation of the capacity of alternative courts to take an additional workload. One solicitor told us of Burton Magistrates Court that is proposed for closure: "They have worked out the usage figures based on four court rooms when there are only three. The fourth court is little more than a cupboard and is not secure."
In other cases the Ministry of Justice include 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. Further examples are given in our response.
The proposal to use alternative public buildings for court proceedings is currently 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 cost. We do not understand why Ministry of Justice is proposing to close purpose-built courts and use public buildings that, in many cases, have inferior facilities.
The option of re-allocating work from extremely busy courts to courts that are currently under-used does not appear to have been considered - transferring cases from courts with backlogs of work and overly-long waiting times to those with spare capacity would represent an efficient use of the court estate. In our submission, we suggest a number of ways to do this.
Notes to editors
1) A copy of our consultation response is available
2) The Law Society consulted solicitors and conducted a survey of the profession in order to assess the effect of the proposed closures. Our response therefore reflects our members’ views.
3) If the current proposals went ahead, they would represent the biggest round of court closures since 2010, when MOJ announced 142 closures as part of its Courts and Estate Reform Programme. The 91 courts and tribunals the government now proposes to close represent nearly one-fifth of the courts estate and a reduction in capacity as follows:
- 257 magistrates court rooms (23 per cent of all magistrates court rooms)
- 139 county court rooms (17 per cent of all county court rooms)
- 63 tribunal rooms (13 per cent of all tribunal rooms)
- 21 crown court rooms (4 per cent of all crown court rooms)
4) The Society asked the Ministry of Justice for:
a) a copy of the data and analysis that was used to determine the list of court and tribunal buildings to close or merge;
b) a copy of the assessments made against the criteria;
c) a copy of the model used to assess travel times; and
d) in the event that summaries of the information listed in (a), (b) or (c) above exist, copies of those summaries.
However, the Ministry of Justice declined to provide this information.
Harriet Beaumont and James Hotson
Law Society press office: 020 7320 5830