Between 2011 and 2014 the Ministry of Justice closed approximately 140 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. It has recently undertaken another review and proposes to close a further 91.
The review starts from the premises that (1) the existing court estate doesn’t meet the Court Service’s requirements (note it’s the requirements of the service not those who might use it), (2) the size and cost of the estate is unsustainable, (3) buildings are underused (a self-fulfilling prophecy given that recent policy has made courts and tribunals inaccessible to all but the very wealthy), in poor condition (that’s what happens when you cut maintenance budgets) or have inadequate facilities.
The sale of properties is estimated to realise approximately £35m (at current values) and save operating costs of approximately £24m per annum and staff costs of approximately £6m per annum.
The Ministry acknowledges some people will be inconvenienced particularly if they live in Wales or rural England and need to go to a Magistrates or County Court. It justifies this by arguing that for most people the additional journey time will be insignificant. The Law Society now tells us:
- the journey times used in the review were taken from a Department of Transport journey planner. This was an error prone computer programme which was closed in September 2014 (folk law has it the tool’s route from London to Eastbourne went via Scotland). The assessment apparently also takes no account of rush-hour traffic, local quirks in the (non) availability of public transport or car parks;
- The Court Service cannot or will not say if anyone has trialled any of the new journeys;
- some of the courts earmarked for closures have recently been refurbished i.e. St Helens (£1.7m) and Macclesfield (£470,000);
- District Judges are concerned they will have nowhere to work or sit;
- Since publishing the report the MoJ has revisited its usage figure for Chichester Combined Court from 78% to 60% while local users estimate the true figure to be about 90%.
I can’t help but reflect that one of my early adventures in the Magistrates Court was at Temple Cloud where the court sat on the first floor of a barn by a farmyard. Someone swept it out before the justices arrived and local justice was dispensed swiftly and cost effectively. Perhaps we need to go back in time to discover the future.
In a separate development the Court Service has said it will create extra court space to halt the rise in waiting times for immigration appeals which is currently approximately 9 months - note this is to contain the delay not eliminate it.