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.

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