Court closures spark fears of ‘justice deserts’ in rural areas

Selling buildings is said to be funding modernisation, but some may have gone for as little as £1

Dozens of the 500 courts in England and Wales are to be shut down under a £75m-a-year Ministry of Justice reform programme, fuelling fears that rural areas will become “deserts” of justice. 

When he announced an estate “modernisation” last month, the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, focused on how the money would be invested in refurbishing courts and improving the technology used within them. He said these moves would save the Government more than £100m a year by 2020.

However, senior officials have privately confirmed that the only way of making such substantial savings is by shutting more courts. One Ministry of Justice source said:  “How else could you do it?”

These closures come on top of plans from 2010, when the Ministry revealed it would shut one in four of the 650 magistrates’ and county courts in England and Wales. This has been a troubled programme that saw around 100 courts still standing empty last year after the department failed to sell them in a depressed property market.

Campaigners fear the closures could result in more valuable court buildings being left unused, with running costs picked up by the taxpayer. The latest available data from last summer shows that 35 buildings have been sold for £14.5m to business including care homes and veterinary practices. There are reports that some fetched only £1. 

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said last night: “The evidence from their last closure round was that dozens of courts remained unsold for years, costing millions, even though they were sat empty.

“In many rural areas we need to make sure people are still able to get to courts. The Government’s cuts to legal aid have led to advice deserts, and the closure of courts has led to justice deserts. These further closures risk making it all the more difficult for victims, witnesses, claimants and defendants to attend courts and get justice.”

Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, admitted recently to the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee, that there would have to be more efficient use of the court estate to generate savings. He cited an example in Newport, South Wales, where there are separate buildings for county, magistrates’ and crown courts, and for immigration tribunals.

He said: “We have the opportunity now, with technology, of being able to deliver justice much more in the way that we might have done 40 or 50 years ago, which is in smaller, non-purpose-built buildings, but linked with modern technology.”

His evidence also revealed that the court system’s computer technology is archaic: “When you get to the courts you will see that there are some systems that operate without a mouse. That is not because they are modern, but because they were in place before the mouse came along.”

Penelope Gibbs, director of the charity Transform Justice, said that she was in favour of Lord Thomas’s suggestion of holding magistrates’ hearings in local venues that are not courts, such as council chambers and community centres, should closures go ahead.

But she warned: “The announcement by the MoJ and the words of the Lord Chief Justice both suggest that more court closures are on the cards.  It makes sense to consolidate court buildings in city centres, but the closure of more magistrates’ courts in rural areas will threaten local justice.”

Juliet Lyon, director of  the Prison Reform Trust, argued that an over-reliance on technology could prevent hearings taking place in person. She said: “While it’s important to improve the IT systems so parts of the justice system can communicate effectively, it’s unwise to cut out opportunities for face-to-face meetings, in particular for people to give evidence in court.”

Courts minister Shailesh Vara said: “The new programme of investment will make sure that the right money is spent in the right locations, helping to deliver value for money and the most efficient use of our court system.”

Earlier this month, the MoJ revealed that some of the £75m will be spent on technology that would let police officers digitally record evidence at crime scenes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...