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Court closures - what's changing?

8 November 2019

HM Courts & 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.

Closures by location

Find out which magistrates’ courts have closed in your local area since 2010 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 between 2015 to March 2019 on the National Audit Office website. It covers tribunals, as well as crown, county, magistrates’ and combined courts.

The maps below show the increased distances to the nearest courts in West Suffolk between 2010 and 2019.

Credit: House of Commons Library

Planned closures

The government plans to close 77 more courts by 2025/26, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

HMCTS plans to close:

  • six courts in 2019/20
  • eight in 2020/21
  • 17 in 2021/22

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.

To stay up to date with the reforms, sign up for HMCTS’ monthly newsletter.

Our view

Until digital services have been tested and introduced across the UK, 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’s 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

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.

Listen to our podcast on how the closures are impacting court users

Other concerns

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