Andrew Lane reports on the implications of the Ministry of Justice's "Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales".
On 11th February 2016 the Ministry of Justice announced the results of its consultation – "Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales" – published on 16th July 2015 and which had proposed the closure of 57 magistrates' courts, 19 county courts, 2 crown courts, 4 tribunal hearing centres and 9 combined courts.
In terms of headlines, "Response to the proposal on the provision of court and tribunal services in England and Wales" reported that the Lord Chancellor had decided to retain 5 courts – St Helens County Court, Stockport Magistrates' Court, West Cumbria Magistrates' Court and County Court, Bath Magistrates' Court, County Court and Family Court, and Carmarthen Civil, Family, Tribunal and Probate Hearing Centre.
The other courts marked for closure will indeed close in up to six tranches from this month to September 2017, though in some instances it will not simply be a case of their work being transferred to another court. To give one example, Bow County Court's work will be dealt with by the Clerkenwell & Shoreditch County Court, save for housing possession cases which will continue to be heard in East London at Stratford Magistrates' Court.
The regional decisions in respect of London, Midlands, North East, South East, South West and Wales can be found here.
Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid, said in the foreword to the decision, in words that echo those preceding welfare reform (in particular universal credit):
"We want to use modern technology, including online plea, claims and evidence systems and video conferencing, to reduce the need for people to travel to court. Face to face hearings should in future be reserved only for the most sensitive or complex cases."
Whether that happens, or happens quickly enough to offset the impending impact of the court closures, will be something to monitor. The Minister may be right in saying:
"Access to justice cannot, therefore, be defined solely by proximity to a court or tribunal building."
But certainly at present, such proximity is important to many, as is the capacity of the courts taking on the new caseloads to manage efficiently and effectively. As one District Judge responded to the consultation:
"Some cases can be dealt with remotely or online and there should be the option for every case to be considered in this way. But the majority of cases considered by a District Judge in a County Court involve debt, urgent injunctions, housing, divorce or arrangements for children – life-changing events for individuals who are entitled to a fair trial before a judge if they wish it. The parties' Article 6 rights are engaged."