In a remarkable example of joined-up thinking by the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) this last week, we have heard on the one hand of the dates for further court closures, and on the other that the government is once again looking into the possibility of the remaining courts staying open longer each day. Thus, it seems, we simultaneously need less courts and more court time. I will be examining this mixed and contradictory message in this and my next post, beginning with the news of the court closures.
Court closures are, of course, nothing new. In fact, throughout my time as a lawyer there seems to have been a permanent programme of court closures. I recall when I started practising back in the 1980s there seemed to be at least one court in every local town, and even in some villages. Medium sized towns would typically enjoy the benefit of magistrates’, Crown and county courts. Sadly, those days are now long gone – many of those towns now have no courts at all, although some of the old court buildings remain, as silent reminders.
The latest group of potential closures was announced by the government back in July 2015, when it launched a consultation on proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. This resulted in the decision last year to close 86 of those courts, although the consultation outcome has since been updated, most recently on Monday this week, when the dates for the closure of five of those courts were announced by HMCTS. We were told that Lambeth County Court, Eastbourne Magistrates’ Court, County Court and Family Court, St Albans County Court, Watford Magistrates’ Court and Family Court, Torquay Magistrates’ Court and Llangefni Civil and Family Court “will cease to provide a public-facing service” between the 17th of July (so some may already have closed even before the announcement) and the 17th of September.
Of course, the government characterised the court closures as part of a modernisation programme, rather than as a purely cost-cutting exercise. Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid, told us how it was linked to shiny new “modern IT systems”. Referring to ‘online services’, he said:
“In a society where people transact digitally in so many aspects of life, they expect a service to be available when they need it. Access to justice cannot, therefore, be defined solely by proximity to a court or tribunal building. It must be defined by how easy it is for people – witnesses, victims, claimants, police and lawyers – to access the service they need, however they choose to do so.”
All very well, of course, if you have access to ‘online services’, but many people don’t, or don’t feel happy using such services, as I’m sure the government well knows. As I’ve said here before, and as is surely self-evident, court closures mean reduced access to justice, and no amount of government spin will cover up that simple truth.
The reality is that the court closures have nothing to do with modernisation, and everything to do with cost-cutting, which is particularly ironic when we were told only last week that the government made more than £100 million in profit from court fees during the last year. Clearly, that money is not being ploughed back into maintaining access to justice levels.
The government also suggested that part of the rationale for court closures was that some court buildings were under-used. This may be so, but it doesn’t sit happily with the fact that many courts are over-worked, particularly in these post-legal aid days, where so much time is having to be spent dealing with litigants in person. Why not transfer some of that workload to the under-used courts, which may often be more conveniently located for users?
No, that obvious solution would be too expensive. Blow access to justice, let’s save money by closing local courts and take up the slack by increasing the workload of the courts that remain. Which brings me to my next post, on the subject of longer court hours…