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Half of magistrates courts in England and Wales closed since 2010 – The Guardian

Half of magistrates courts in England and Wales closed since 2010 – The Guardian

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More than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed since 2010, forcing defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and justices of the peace to travel sometimes more than 50 miles to access local justice.

The full scale of the closures is revealed in data published by the Guardian and the House of Commons library. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, 162 of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales have shut – a loss of 50.2% of the estate. The latest was Maidenhead magistrates court in the prime minister’s constituency. Most have been sold.

Graphic

The controversial Ministry of Justice (MOJ) efficiency exercise is directly tied to the need to generate funds for a £1.2bn digital modernisation programme, which came under the spotlight following a meltdown of court computer systems this week.

As large gaps open up in the courts network in Wales, East Anglia and the North of England, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has confirmed it is considering whether to pay for taxis to ferry defendants and witnesses from the most remote parts of the country to hearings.

The distance model developed by HMCTS requires that 95% of the population should be able to travel to court from their homes by public transport leaving at 7.30am and arriving by 9.30am. It also specifies that 98% of the population should be able to reach court by 10.30am, which implies a three-hour journey to court and a further three hours back – a total of six hours travelling on a court attendance day.

Concern about the shutdowns is rising up the political agenda. The Commons’ justice select committee has launched an inquiry into HMCTS’s reforms. Among questions it is addressing are the impact of closures, reductions in staffing and how far online systems and video hearings can be “a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.

Including crown courts, county courts and tribunals, since 2010 more than 250 hearing centres have ceased operating. So far £223m has been raised by sales. Treasury funding for the courts digital programme stipulates that a third must be raised by selling courthouses.

HMCTS and the MoJ justify the closures on the grounds that crime rates have fallen and large numbers of courthouses are operating at less than 40% capacity. The agency is developing justice websites and remote video screens, which, it is argued, will mean fewer journeys to court.

Critics fear savings will only be achieved by displacing costs on to other agencies. The MoJ has declined to give a commitment about halting closures: six more magistrates courts are scheduled to shut this year.

A study by Dr Olumide Adisa of the University of Suffolk found that local court closures have led to an increase in the number failing to attend hearings.

The MoJ disputes such figures, saying the rate of defendant non-appearances did not change at the time most closures were enforced, although it concedes figures rose last year.

Sue James, a solicitor at Hammersmith law centre in west London, suspects a similar problem is emerging among claimants fighting repossession orders, leading to more evictions. Housing work in London has been transferred to Clerkenwell county court. She believes “people are not turning up” at more distant and unfamiliar courts.

A row erupted last year over a case raised by a Telford solicitor, John McMillan, of a defendant from Shropshire who had to attend a remand hearing in Kidderminster and make a 53-mile journey back home via Birmingham. McMillan says the man missed the last bus in Shrewsbury and ending up walking home in the dark long after midnight. The MoJ does not accept the details, maintaining that the man could have left Kidderminster earlier.

The justice minister, Lucy Frazer, said: “The closure of any court is not taken lightly – it only happens following full public consultation and when communities have reasonable access to alternative courts.

“We are reinvesting every penny raised from selling these underused buildings into modernising the justice system to provide swifter and easier access to justice for all.” The MoJ is consulting on guidelines for future closures.

John Bache JP, the national chair of the Magistrates Association, said: “Justice should, wherever possible, be administered locally and, with half of all magistrates courts having closed since 2010, many courts are already worryingly remote from the communities that they serve.

“A more dispersed court estate will affect the retention and recruitment of magistrates, as some will have to step down if their local court closes and people will be less likely to apply in the first place if the nearest court is not in their immediate area. Longer travel distances for magistrates will also increase the cost of meeting their travel expenses.”

Penelope Gibbs, the director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate who monitors the service, said: “Courts are being closed without really thinking through the consequences. Vulnerable defendants and witnesses cannot be expected to travel several hours to attend court and to spend significant sums on doing so. Already many do not turn up for their own court hearing.”

Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said: “People across England and Wales are losing access to their local courts and having to travel sometimes for several hours on public transport to alternative sites – assuming that such public transport even exists.

“In addition, police and prison delivery services may suffer increased costs, which will ultimately fall on the taxpayer. There is some evidence of defendants increasingly failing to turn up for criminal hearings, resulting in court time being wasted and witnesses being inconvenienced, as well as cost to the public purse.”

Examples of long journeys to court

  • Residents of Staylittle in Wales have a 1 hour and 50 minute car journey (74 miles) to Caernarfon criminal justice centre, the designated “receiving site” for Dolgellau magistrates court, which closed in 2017-18.

  • People living in Kielder in Northumberland were previously served by Tynedale magistrates court in Hexham, 34 miles away. They now have to travel 52 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne magistrates court, which according to Google takes 2 hours and 53 minutes by public transport. Services do not run daily.

  • In the past, those living in Mildenhall in East Anglia could reach Thetford magistrates court within 18 minutes by car or 40 minutes by bus at certain times of the day. But since it closed in 2013-14 the designated receiving court is Norwich magistrate’s court, a 55-minute drive or an extra hour by public transport, although it can take longer depending on the time of day.



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