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Court closures – trying to get a quart into a pint pot?

Penelope Gibbs
17 Feb 2018

How many courts do you need to close before the system grinds to a halt?  Ever since the government took over the ownership of courts from local authorities in 2005, they have been closing them down at a fierce rate such that there are now 250 fewer courts in England and Wales.

There is a proposal on the table now to close 8 more courts, including relatively modern ones like Cambridge and Maidenhead magistrates’ courts and Blackfriars Crown Court. The courts service (HMCTS) insist that all the criminal courts being closed are significantly under used and their work can be accommodated in nearby courts. But the calculations are not entirely convincing

– Its assumed that the volume of work carried out now will not increase. This doesn’t take account of fluctuations in prosecutions, or that constraints on staff resources currently limit the number of cases heard. When cases can be listed depends on having enough judges and court staff. But the number of magistrates has halved and the number of court staff been cut by a quarter in recent years. So the empty court rooms could be used, and cases heard more promptly, if there were more people to hear the cases.

– They calculate that criminal court work can be divided into units of an hour and thus one hour under-used in a court marked for closure can be slotted into a one hour gap in an existing court. But trials hardly ever take just an hour, so time under-used at Blackfriars Crown Court cannot easily be transferred to Southwark instead. Some spare capacity is needed in courts anyway – to accommodate cases that over-run. As it is, witnesses and defendants who are at court are often turned away because they’ve run out of time to hear their case that day.

– HMCTS estimate travel times from a court user’s home to court on the basis of travelling from one town centre to another. So in the case of Cambridge, whose magistrates’ court is earmarked for closure, the journeys are calculated from the towns in Cambridgeshire (Huntingdon, St Neots, Ely), not from the countryside. Someone living 15 miles south east of Cambridge, who might currently be able to get into the city by bus in 45 minutes, will take considerably longer than the 1 hour 10 minutes estimated as the journey time between Cambridge and Huntingdon (the proposed new court) by public transport.

The reason why courts are being closed is because many hearings will be replaced by virtual (“trial by skype”) and online courts and processes. Many (most?) remand, pre-trial hearings and summary trials  will be fully virtual. I’m not clear how this whole proposed scenario will improve access to justice, and the risk is the system will descend into chaos. Pending the development of the brave new virtual world, court users will be expected to spend hours travelling to court, navigating complicated journeys. Witnesses will vote with their feet by not turning up at all, while defendants will be even later than they already are, or fail to appear and have to be arrested on warrant. This is the worst case scenario. I really hope it doesn’t happen – which is why I urge all you weary people to put your cynicism aside and respond to one or more of the current consultations on court closures.  Transform Justice has done a briefing on the court closure consultations.