The Ministry of Justice has added two more London courts to its lengthy list of court closures despite concerns that the move could lead to further gang-related violence in the capital. The Law Society called the decision 'ill-considered'.
Publishing a consultation response document today, the ministry said the lord chancellor had decided to close Camberwell Green and Hammersmith magistrates’ courts.
Under the plans for Camberwell Green, hearings for those appearing in court under the age of 18 will be relocated to Bromley Magistrates’ Court, which is eight miles away.
Hearings for those appearing in court over the age of 18 will be relocated to Croydon Magistrates’ Court, which is nine miles away.
Housing possession work was scheduled to move from Lambeth County Court to Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in September. This will now relocate to one of the Crown courts in the London borough of Southwark.
Under the Hammersmith plans, hearings for those appearing in court under the age of 18 will be relocated to Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court in north London.
Hearings for those appearing in court over the age of 18 will be relocated to Westminster, City of London and Hendon magistrates’ courts.
The increased potential for gang-related violence was raised among the 159 consultation responses.
On the Camberwell Green closure, one respondent told the consultation that ’the idea that two boroughs can be amalgamated will provoke clashes between rival gangs appearing on the same date or at the same building’.
Another noted that Lambeth had been identified by the Home Office as a priority borough for support in relation to gang and serious youth violence. ‘Travelling through boroughs will raise concerns for safety and increase the potential for violence/gang-related incidents,’ the respondent said.
A member of the judiciary told the consultation that, should Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court close, ‘asking young people to travel further afield would be a further deterrent due to the “postcode” issues – travelling into areas where they would feel vulnerable and at risk, due to gang activity’.
The ministry’s response states that the London region has a gangs protocol which is already used to reduce the risk of rival groups converging.
Travel time was another concern raised by respondents. The ministry said London was served by good public transport links which run frequently and are relatively affordable.
However, the ministry revised its travel time from Hammersmith to Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court from 16 minutes to 35 minutes.
Greg Stewart, principal at criminal defence firm GT Stewart, which has two offices in Camberwell, told the Gazette today’s news was shocking and that years of experience would be lost.
He said: ‘Lawyers and their clients as well as witnesses will have to spend time travelling to distant courts, making the system more inefficient when we have worked hard to improve it.’
With new criminal legal aid contracts due to commence in April, Stewart said the news was a huge blow to business plans made for a government procurement process that closed on the day the ministry announced proposals to close the two courts.
Law Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘This decision is ill-considered given government has carried out a no more than cursory assessment of the impact on access to justice of the very recent closure of 86 courts across England and Wales, including 10 in London.
‘And it is just extraordinary the government would close Camberwell Green magistrates’ court less than a year after it spent so much public money making it fit for 21st century justice.
‘We support government efforts to improve court efficiency through better use of technology, as was being introduced in Camberwell Green. However, the modernisation process will take time. It cannot fill the immediate gap created by each court closure. Every time a court is closed further pressure is placed on those courts, personnel and judiciary that remain.’
Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, said the delivery of justice was becoming 'ever more remote' in London, with defendants, witnesses, lawyers and victims having to travel long and expensive distances.
London 'has always had a chaotic and unplanned criminal justice system with prisons, courts and police stations seemingly scattered at random across a vast area', he added. 'We are asked to help transform justice while further cuts are contemplated and the infrastructure rearranged as it is asset-stripped.'
A spokesperson for HMCTS said: 'We have a world-leading legal system and are investing £1bn to modernise our courts and tribunals to deliver justice that is efficient, simple and works for everyone.
'London has the densest concentration of magistrates' courts in the country, and we are confident access to justice can be maintained and significant savings for reinvestment in our court reforms can be achieved through these closures.'