Courts estate is set to be brutally pared – and the poorest will suffer.
As the Conservative delegates shuffled out of David Cameron’s speech last week, tipsy on power and flirting with new ideas of equality, it was unlikely many were thinking of court closures.
Perhaps they should. To paraphrase the cinema trailer, there is a closure coming to a town near them.
The Ministry of Justice plans to close 91 courts the length and breadth of the country, mainly on the basis that fewer courts means fewer staff, which equals a reduced budget. A few dusty old buildings, unfit for purpose, are necessary collateral damage in the cause of austerity.
The policy has largely been ignored by the general public because ensuring local felons have a court on their doorstep is not on the to-do list of many. But this programme of closures threatens to undermine Cameron’s message.
For a start, it’s not just the magistrates’ courts that are affected. The idea is also to close 139 county court rooms – the type of facility home to family, housing and personal injury cases that tend not to grab headlines.
Experts from these sectors are clear: the effects of forcing people to travel long and expensive distances could be disastrous. These are people pleading to keep a roof over their heads, or for access to their children. Their day in court could affect the rest of their life.
If so many courts are to close, the MoJ has alternatives lined up for each. Except those alternatives are increasingly dismissed as unreasonable by those who know the roads and public transport network of their area. This week it transpired the alternative routes were taken directly from a Department for Transport search engine that was shut down last September.
The MoJ pledges that 95% of people will be within an hour of a court. Try telling that to the people of Barnstaple, who face a four-hour round-trip to Exeter. Or those in Cumbria whose entire county will be left with two courts, and are best advised to set off the night before their court appearance and camp outside if they want to ensure being on time.
Suffolk will have one court for every 1,400 square miles; Chichester folk are sent to Brighton to compete for parking spaces with tourists. The journey from Aylesbury to Milton Keynes can be done in an hour, on a good day, but turn up at peak time and it will cost you £71 return.
Many of the towns affected are among the poorest in the country. In St Helens, where a third of people do not have access to a car, suggesting alternative road routes to Liverpool seems academic. Those that can drive will pay £14 for the privilege of parking their car in a city centre.
In some cases the proposed closures are simply baffling. St Helens was refurbished three years ago at a cost of £1.7m to the taxpayer. The local council warns it has no use for the building and developers will be in no rush to open a Wetherspoon's or luxury flats.
These are cuts which are unfair, poorly thought through and, when you consider the cost of maintaining mothballing buildings, counter-productive. Cancel some of these closures and Cameron really will convince the doubters of his new equality mission.
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor