The government has launched a consultation on possible court closures as part of HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s £1bn digitisation programme.
The consultation, which was announced by HMCTS chief executive Susan Acland-Hood yesterday, will look to rationalise the estate as part of wide-ranging reforms that are intended to move more services online and reduce the need for so many physical locations.
The ten-week consultations will consider the closure of eight courts: Banbury Magistrates’ and County Court, Maidenhead Magistrates’ Court, Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, Chorley Magistrates’ Court, Fleetwood Magistrates’ Court, Northallerton Magistrates’ Court, Wandsworth County Court, and Blackfriars Crown Court.
In the foreword to the consultation, Acland-Hood said the closures were needed to invest in “wholly new, more convenient, fleeter routes to justice”.
She said: “This will mean using our court and tribunal buildings differently, and giving more opportunities to settle disputes – and to progress cases – that do not depend on travelling and physically attending court. It will also mean making sure that our buildings are fit for purpose, and that their physical condition both helps people use them, and reflects the importance of the work being done in them – something too often not the case in the buildings we have now.”
"The history of HM Courts & Tribunals Service means that we often have multiple buildings in the same town; and have many courts and tribunals in places where no thoughtful planner would put them if designing the system now. Having many more ways to access justice without travel, and having fewer, better buildings, that are well-located and well-connected, welcoming, easy to use, and in good condition, will both give us a better justice system, and release resources to make it sustainable.”
In an interview with Civil Service World last year, Acland-Hood said the agency’s wider digital reform plans – which range from creating an online platform for the police to sharing details of criminal charges with the Crown Prosecution Service, to an electronic rota for magistrates and even an online system for divorce proceedings – would be part-funded by reducing the size of the court estate.
She set out the plans in two stages. The first is making the most efficient use of the existing caseload, while in the second round the new digital system will be helping to reduce the number of cases.
“We are already in the process of closing around 117 court buildings, and that programme is going pretty well. We have good plans that have already been executed or are in the course of being executed to make sure we’re able to move work from the buildings that are closing down to other buildings and accommodate it,” Acland-Hood said.
“We have quite a lot of towns where we have several buildings more or less within sight of each other that have grown up though the heritage of HMCTS. Quite a lot of the closures that we undertake are about going from having four buildings in one town to having two, and working out how we can fit the work in, and that seems to me to be eminently sensible good management.”
A second stage would come when there are clear signs that digital improvements are reducing the number of cases that need to be heard in court, therefore freeing up even more capacity. According to HMCTS, 80,000 online pleas were made last year for low level motoring offences, for example.
“As we go through the reform we will find different ways for people to access justice, and fewer cases will need to come a physical hearing in a physical court building” Acland-Hood added.
“And as we do that, the opportunity to think again about how we can close more court buildings will arise. What we have said is we will frontload the change to technology and ways of working, and backload the estate changes, so we will try and demonstrate we can take that work of out of the estate before we start closing buildings.”
Responding to the consultation, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said it was a “hammer blow to local justice”.
“We do not accept that closing any of these courts would improve the quality of the service the Ministry of Justice provides. We do not accept that the changes that HM Courts & Tribunals Service is making and envisage for the future, are about improving the justice system or access to justice,” he said.