Lord chancellor Michael Gove has given notice of a radical reform programme that will include the closure of over a fifth of magistrates’ courts and yet another review of legal services regulation.
The Ministry of Justice last week unveiled proposals to shut 91 courts and tribunals and integrate a further 31. In total, 257 magistrates’ court rooms would go, representing 23% of the current total. A further 21 Crown court rooms would shut, equating to 4% of the current total.
The court estate, which numbers 460 hearing centres, has been under threat since Gove (pictured) said last month that underused buildings would be earmarked for closure.
Announcing a consultation on closures, justice minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘The estate costs taxpayers around half a billion pounds each year, and at present it is underused. Last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time.’
He added that 95% of people will remain within an hour’s drive of a court and 83% within an hour’s drive of a tribunal.
In its impact assessment, the MoJ says the disposal value of all the freehold buildings listed for closure is estimated at £35m.
Assuming the closure of 115 courts, the assessment says the plans will save £30m a year by 2020 – including £6m a year in staff costs. The document says there will be voluntary and compulsory redundancies, while some staff will transfer to other sites.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents court staff, has already said it will challenge the MoJ’s method for calculating whether courts are underused. ‘We do not believe it is in the interests of justice to leave our communities without easy access to courthouses and tribunals,’ said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.
Gove developed a reputation for reforming zeal during his tenure at the Department for Education, and appears keen to approach his justice brief with the same interventionist enthusiasm.
The announcement on court closures came a day after Gove’s first appearance before the House of Commons justice committee, in which the lord chancellor revealed he plans to review the Legal Services Act in this parliament. He noted there is a ‘danger of regulators falling over each other’s feet’ under the current regime.
Gove also used his committee appearance to affirm a pledge to review employment tribunal fees and civil court fees, both introduced under his predecessor Chris Grayling.
But he said he will take some convincing of the need to reduce either, saying that a reduction in employment claims did not necessarily mean that meritorious claims were being denied, while court fees could be revised only ‘if we find cases of rough justice’.
Another hangover from Grayling’s tenure, reform of whiplash diagnosis, will also come under the microscope.
MedCo, the independent panel of experts through which all whiplash cases must be tested, was created in April and a review earmarked for September. The ministry confirmed on the same day as the court closures that the review has been brought forward after diagnosis providers registered several companies to join the panel.
Justice minister Lord Faulks said: ‘Issues relating to a number of new business practices within this sector have emerged which have the potential to undermine the government’s policy objectives and public confidence in the MedCo portal.’
The review will be published in the autumn.