Since 2011, the Ministry of Justice has closed 200 courts and tribunals across England and Wales. The Ministry is currently consulting on whether to close a further eight across five regions in the coming months.
Save within the Treasury, there is little appetite for this latest round of culls, with MPs from all sides and a legal profession united for once standing opposed to this further erosion of the principle that justice should be dispensed locally.
There are now vast swathes of the country where people have to travel long distances in order to get to court, and what if you don’t have a car and have to rely on public transport? It will be the rural communities that will be hardest hit. As an MP in Derbyshire has observed, since the closure of Buxton Magistrates Court, people now have to travel 40 miles in order to get to Chesterfield Magistrates’ Court on the other side of the Pennines, a journey that can take 90 minutes on a good day.
How can this be right? Just think about this common scenario. A person arrested and charged with an offence is remanded into custody overnight to go to their nearest court the next day. They have to be taken there. Since the transportation of prisoners has been outsourced, the transport van used to pick the prisoner up has to travel from its home base, usually some distance away, to several police stations in the locality in order to pick up prisoners to transport them to several different courts. Our unfortunate chap will be lucky to arrive at court in the morning.
In the meantime, the victim may want to attend the hearing, as might the families of the defendant. They might be youths, elderly or disabled. They might not drive. They might have valuable information that they wish to pass on to the advocates at court in order to assist with the court proceedings. How will they get to a court which could be in an area they don’t know and have no idea how to get to at short notice? What about the magistrates (who are volunteers and are the clearest example of local justice being meted out by local people) who will now be expected to travel to areas that they have no inherent knowledge of in order to dispense justice?
The government justifies its position on the basis of statistics – that courts are working well under capacity, so therefore close courts and make the remaining ones work harder. This logic is deeply flawed as there are complex reasons as to why a court room may not necessarily be sitting for its full allocation of hours in a day (one of them being that everyone is waiting for the prison vans to arrive!).
When I started out on my legal career in South West London in the early 2000s, we had magistrates’ courts in Kingston, Richmond, Wimbledon, Acton, Ealing and Hammersmith. Of these six, Kingston, Richmond and Acton have closed, and Ealing and Hammersmith are earmarked for closure. Only Wimbledon remains.
Above everything else, court closures deny the one thing that the system should be based on above everything else – justice for the people who use it.