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MoJ announces plans to close 91 courts and tribunals

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 31 July 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Chairs in court

The Ministry of Justice has opened a consultation to close 91 courts across England and Wales, as part of their ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of money spent on justice.

If the closures go ahead, it will mean that 40% of courthouses in England and Wales have closed since 2010.

Which courts are closing?

Under the plans, 91 courts are slated for the executioner’s axe, with another 31 courts being integrated into other existing courts. Buildings will be closed as follows:

  • 59 magistrates’ courts
  • 30 county courts
  • 4 crown courts
  • 19 employment tribunal hearing centres
  • 10 combined courts

Despite the loss of this many courts, justice secretary Michael Gove is insistent that 95% of people will still be within 1 hour’s drive of a county, magistrates’ or crown court (assuming they are traveling by car, and not public transport).

Why close the courts?

The courts are being closed to save money. According to the MoJ, England and Wales has more courts than it needs, resulting in many of them sitting empty most of the time.

They hope to save £500m from the budget, which can be invested to improve technology in the remaining courts.

Shailesh Vara from the MoJ says that many courts are “underused”.

“Last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time,” he said. “The buildings being consulted on represent 16% of hearing rooms across the estate which are, on average, used for only a third of their available time.

“That is equivalent to fewer than two out of five days in a week.”

The MoJ has plans to increase the use of phone and video conferencing, as well as utilising non-court buildings to reduce the number of cases that need to be heard in courtrooms.

“To ensure that access to justice is maintained, even in more rural locations, we are committed to providing alternative ways for users to access our services,” said Mr Vara. “That can mean using civic and other public buildings, such as town halls, for hearings instead of underused, poorly-maintained permanent courts.”

Is it a good idea?

Many are unconvinced that it would be possible to close all of these courts and still maintain access to justice for everyone, especially as legal aid cuts continue to bite.

Solicitors in rural areas are particularly concerned, with some warning that areas will become “advice deserts”, where people will find it difficult to get representation.

In North Wales, where four courts are planned for closure, MPs and Welsh Assembly members have warned of the practical difficulties that people in rural areas will face, traveling dozens of miles with limited public transport.

“There are many communities in Meirionnydd where the availability of public transport is limited, making it near impossible for people to reach either Caernarfon or Aberystwyth in time for a 9.30am start,” said Liz Savile-Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.

“There are also real concerns about intimidation, when defendants and witnesses travel on the same bus.”

Ann Jones, Assembly Member for Vale of Clwyd, added: “Vulnerable victims of crime, who have to give evidence in criminal cases, will now be expected to undertake longer journeys at greater expense.”

There are also doubts as to whether the closures can provide the revenue and savings predicted by the MoJ. They intend to sell the court buildings to generate extra revenue – however, similar efforts to sell other courts do not appear to have been as successful as one would have hoped.

According to a Freedom of Information request published in September 2013, the government had only sold around 35 of the courts that had been earmarked for closure three years previously.

While the sales had generated £14.5 million, there were 48 other buildings still sitting unsold. Between fuel, utilities and other costs, maintaining these empty buildings was said to cost around £202,000 on average, per court. Some of the courts that were sold apparently went for just £1 each.

And while some of the courts earmarked for closure may be “poorly-maintained”, this certainly can’t be said for all of them.

Macclesfield Magistrates’ Court, for example, underwent a refurbishment a mere three years ago, at a cost of £470,000 – now it is set to close. (Although, at least this demonstrates the MoJ’s resistance to the sunk cost fallacy).

If the move truly can save the justice system money, it may prove worth it, particularly if it allows the MoJ to improve court services.

However, recent decisions and cuts mean that solicitors and other critics will take a lot of convincing to accept these changes.

If you want to respond to the consultation, you can find the necessary details on the MoJ’s website. If you need to find any court details, including addresses, telephone numbers and email address, please use our court directory.

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