Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Review of the Courts and Tribunals estate: consultation

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On 16 July 2015, the Government published proposals for reviewing the numbers of courts and tribunals buildings, with as view to amalgamating some and closing others.

At present (and despite recent closures) Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service still operates 460 courts and tribunal hearing centres across England and Wales. The estate costs taxpayers around half a billion pounds each year, and at present, much of it is underused. For example, in 2014, over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than fifty per cent of their available hearing time.

The new consultation puts forward proposals that aim to reduce this surplus capacity. It proposes the closure of 91 court/tribunal buildings. These represent 16% of hearing rooms across the estate which are, on average, used for only a third of their available time. That is equivalent to fewer than 2 out of 5 days in a week. Indeed, the majority of these courts are not used for at least two thirds of their available time, and one in three are not used three quarters of the time.

The arguments against closure tend to fall into two categories. First, is that courts are often landmark buildings, whose closure will adversely affect specific communities. The second, is that closure will reduce the ability of users to get to court for hearings. On the latter point, the Government notes:

1. Attending court is rare for most people. It will still be the case that, after these changes, over 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car. This represents a change of just 1 percentage point for Crown and magistrates’ courts and 2 percentage points for County Courts. The proportion of citizens able to reach a tribunal within an hour by car will remain unchanged at 83%.

2. To ensure that access to justice is maintained, even in more rural locations, the Government is committed to providing alternative ways for users to access court/tribunal services. That can mean using civic and other public buildings, such as town halls, for hearings instead of underused, poorly-maintained permanent courts.

3. In my view by far the most important argument is that the Government argues that it is reforming the courts and tribunal service so that it meets the needs of modern day users. As it brings in digital technology for better and more efficient access to justice (which hitherto has been pitifully slow), fewer people will need to physically be in a court.

The full consultation is at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/proposal-on-the-provision-of-court-and-tribunal-estate-in-england-and-wales. The Consultation runs until early October 2015.

On the question of amalgamation of existing buildings, the Government states that it is not consulting on these matters but will be liasing with stakeholders in the places affected.

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Written by lwtmp

July 26, 2015 at 3:09 pm

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