Lawyers and justice campaigners have raised fresh concerns about the government’s court closure programme, alleging that the proposals are based on out-of-date travel times and other dubious data.
When it launched its consultation in July proposing the closure of 91 courts, the government stated that 95% of users would still be able to get to alternative sites within an hour.
But last week it emerged that travel times which formed the basis for suggested alternatives are based on an inaccessible website that was shut down over a year ago. Some people will face journeys of more than two hours, it is claimed, partly because the impact assessment appears to take no account of rush-hour traffic or peak-time travel costs.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service confirmed the travel time analysis came from the Department for Transport’s ‘journey planner’ tool – a site closed in September 2014. A spokeswoman for HMCTS could not confirm whether any staff member had actually made any of the suggested journeys in person, admitting the analysis was included to provide ‘an indication’.
Meanwhile, district judges have voiced concern that they will have nowhere to work or sit when they are moved to centralised venues. Some of the courts earmarked for closure have undergone major refurbishment since the last review of the courts estate in 2010. Around £1.7m has been spent at St Helens and £470,000 at Macclesfield.
The government also admitted to giving an inaccurate usage figure in its impact assessment for Chichester Combined Court, previously thought to be the busiest court earmarked for closure.
In a response to a freedom of information request from the Gazette, the Ministry of Justice said usage for 2014/15 was 60% and not the 78% stated originally. Campaigners to save the court have suggested usage is actually much nearer the 92% recorded five years ago.
The Law Society last week called for 59 of the 91 courts to be saved after compelling cases for their reprieve were submitted by hundreds of solicitors.
In its response to the MoJ consultation, the Society said it was ‘seriously concerned’ about the impact of the proposed closures.
‘While a modernised court service and efficient use of technology would benefit all court users, this must not come at the expense of access to justice,’ it added.
The response cited a ‘worrying number’ of factual errors in the consultation. These included calculating usage figures based on the wrong number of courtrooms, and proposing that a court be closed because it lacks technology, when in fact the technology has been installed.
There are also concerns about what happens to the buildings once they are vacated. The last round of court closures saw dozens remain unsold within two years of the decision, costing the taxpayer £202,000 a month in maintenance costs.
In its own consultation response, St Helens Borough Council said it had no plans to buy or use the site if the town’s court closed, and that it would be difficult to convert the building to alternative use.
It added: ‘Decommissioned court buildings in other towns nearby such as Northwich and Huyton have remained empty for several years due to prohibitive conversion and demolition costs.’
The closure programme involves 257 magistrates’ courtrooms (23% of all the magistrates’ courtrooms in the country), 139 county courtrooms, 63 tribunal rooms and 21 Crown courtrooms.