MPs have asked the Ministry of Justice to explain how it calculated a travel time to court of three hours and 22 minutes made necessary by its latest closure proposals.
A consultation paper on closing Northallerton Magistrates' Court in North Yorkshire states the 40.5 mile journey from Richmond, which the court currently serves, to an alternative site in Harrogate will take 3 hours and 22 minutes by public transport. In a letter to justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP, the House of Commons justice select committee asks to what extent the travel times are based on people having easy access to a bus stop 'given that, in a rural area, this is often not the case'.
Bob Neill MP, committee chair, writes: 'The equality analysis that accompanies this consultation paper - in common with the other equality statements in this package of consultations - makes no mention of the indirectly discriminatory impact of a six-hour (plus) round trip on elderly people or on women, who are more likely to be caring for pre-school and/or school-aged children; nor does it suggest what reasonable adjustments would be made for people with a mobility impairment; in particular wheelchair users - other than a reference to adjustments in court buildings themselves.'
The ministry, in its latest consultation, says it would be inappropriate to assess effective access to justice by specific travel times. Specific times would be arbitrary and not based on particular analysis of court and tribunal users' needs. However, acknowledging concerns, the ministry proposes that, 'in considering the access to justice principle in relation to physical hearings, rather than setting a number of hours, we should, as is done in the Scottish system, set an aim that nearly all users should be able to attend court or a tribunal on time and return within a day, by public transport if necessary'.
However, Neill says 'no convincing policy justification has been offered for the current proposal, which appears to favour the principle of value for money over the principle of access to justice. We dispute the assertion that any particular time standard would be "arbitrary", and we question the assumption that virtual hearings will, and should, increasingly take the place of physical access to hearing rooms'.
The committee also questions whether alternative court buildings have the capacity to take on the work being conducted by the courts under threat. Neill highlights an assumption that spare slots in hearing rooms will be predictable, which is not often the case, and that hearing rooms will be unoccupied for gaps long enough to conduct court business. Banbury Magistrates' and County Court sat for 2,211 hours in 2016/17. The committee says spare capacity at Oxford Magistrates' Court, one of the two proposed alternative courts, is less than 1,200 hours.
The consultations close on 29 March.