HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) hopes to fund improvements to the court system, such as new digital services, by selling under-used court buildings.
Between 2010 and 2019, over half the courts across England and Wales were closed.
While we broadly support efforts to improve the courts through better technology, there will be times when only a face-to-face hearing will deliver justice.
We believe that any technology used to replace physical hearings must be tested and shown to work before courts are closed.
Coronavirus and the court backlog
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic exacerbated an already growing backlog of cases.
In July 2020, the government announced that it would open ‘Nightingale courts’ as part of its court recovery plan to address the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system.
In June 2021, there were more than 58,000 outstanding Crown Court cases and more than 386,000 in the magistrates’ courts.
Closures by locationFind out which magistrates' courts closed in your local area between 2010 and 2020 on the House of Commons library website.
Distance to the nearest court
Many court users must travel further because courts in their area have closed.
View a map showing travel distances to courts in your area from 2015 to March 2019 on the National Audit Office website. It covers tribunals, as well as crown, county, magistrates’ and combined courts.
The government plans to close 77 more courts by 2025/26, according to a report by the National Audit Office.
In May 2019, following our calls to delay future closures, the government said it would not close courts unless it has evidence that its reforms are reducing the use of those buildings.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a fast and widespread transition to digital services, including remote hearings.
However, more testing of the reforms is needed and many users still need to go to court in person. If you need to travel further to attend court, the journey is likely to take longer and cost more. This makes it harder for some people to attend court and get access to justice.
Accessibility is key to the success of HMCTS' reform programme. We cannot consider a system to deliver justice if it prevents people from using the courts effectively.
Impact on court users
We're concerned that court closures could have a negative impact on court users, including those:
- from low-income households
- with disabilities or mobility issues
- with children or caring responsibilities
- from rural areas or without access to a car
- who own a business – longer travel times may mean extra costs, such as overtime pay for staff
- who rely on an interpreter – they're not paid for their travel time so may be less willing to attend court
Some of these groups may not be best served by a remote hearing.
HMCTS has defined a day's travel to court as a court user leaving their home no earlier than 7.30am and returning by 7.30pm. We believe that such a long benchmark will especially impact those with children or caring responsibilities, the elderly and the disabled.
We also told HMCTS about our concerns that:
- moving cases to other courts has led to confusion
- the reputation of the law may suffer without formal court buildings
- data on court use may not be accurate – and may influence closure decisions while not reflecting how the courts are being used
We've also pointed out issues that it should consider in more detail, including:
- the value of having magistrates who understand local issues at a hearing
- longer journeys increase the chance of difficulties including public transport limitations and other delays to travel times, such as poor road conditions
- the impact of the flexible operating hours programme
- the risks of intimidation – for example, if defendants and witnesses travel to court together on the same public transport the security needs for other venues – public buildings may not have the right facilities for certain cases
What we're doing
- August 2021 – we took part in a panel session with HMCTS and Public Health England to discuss the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in courts and tribunals
- March 2021 – we wrote to HMCTS asking for clarity on the plans for courts after restrictions lift
- January 2021 – we provided oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee inquiry on court capacity and the future of legal aid
- September 2020 – we published Law under lockdown, a report on the impact of COVID-19 measures on access to justice and vulnerable people
- August 2020 – we created an interactive map to show temporary Nightingale courts set up in response to the coronavirus pandemic
- May 2020 – we responded to the Civil Justice Council's rapid consultation on the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) measures on the civil justice system and welcomed the reopening of four Crown Courts to resume jury trials
- April 2020 – we published an interactive heatmap showing the building status of courts and tribunals in England and Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic
- March 2020 – we worked with the Ministry of Justice and HMCTS to keep courts running effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic, using technology wherever possible
- November 2019 – we welcome the Justice Select Committee report that recommends a delay on more court closures
- October 2019 – we gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the progress on transforming courts and tribunals.
- March and May 2019 – we gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the reforms
- March 2018 – we responded to three consultations on the reform plans and the future of Cambridge Magistrates' Court and five other courts. We told HMCTS to delay future closures until the reforms are shown to work (Cambridge Magistrates' Court will now stay open and Northallerton Magistrates' Court will stay open until technology is ready)
- February 2018 – we invited members to give their views on plans to close eight courts, and on the government's approach to court closures
- October 2016 – we responded to a consultation on plans to close magistrates' courts in Camberwell Green and Hammersmith (PDF 350 KB)
- February 2016 – we created a briefing document to help campaigners oppose the closures, after the government announced the closure of 86 courts
- October 2015 – we responded to the government’s consultation on plans to close or merge 122 courts and tribunals in England and Wales
If you're concerned about how closures are affecting your area:
Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate – government consultation response on its reform plans (May 2019)
Assessing the impact of the magistrates’ court closures in Suffolk – research report by Dr Olumide Adisa (PDF 1371 KB)