The Ministry of Justice has denied ever promising a benchmark figure for an acceptable maximum public transport travel time for people attending court when it considers court closures. In a letter to House of Commons justice select committee chair Bob Neill MP, permanent secretary Richard Heaton (pictured) said access to justice was ‘not just about’ court proximity.
Heaton said: ‘We believe that we can improve access to justice by reducing the number of underused, poor-quality, permanent buildings and investing in digital access and, where appropriate, using other local public buildings for access of hearings.’
Earlier this year the ministry confirmed that 86 out of 91 threatened courts and tribunals across England and Wales would close. In September, it also earmarked Camberwell Green and Hammersmith magistrates’ courts in London for closure.
Heaton was responding to a question raised at an evidence session of the justice select committee in October, where he was asked to confirm if the ministry had a maximum acceptable travel time for witnesses, victims and justice professionals to attend a hearing.
The committee had been under the impression that the ministry had a set figure. Neill informed Heaton that a previous justice minister had told the committee that 'about an hour' was regarded as an acceptable figure.
But in his letter, Heaton said the ministry 'does not apply a specific maximum travel time when considering changes to its estate'.
He added: ‘When proposing changes to the court and tribunal estate, the ministry takes into account the potential impact of the proposals on its users. This includes the impact on travel time and whether this would remain reasonable should the change take place.’
An impact assessment on the ministry’s Estate Reform Programme states that 2.5 million people will no longer be within 30 minutes’ travel time by public transport to their nearest magistrates’ court, with a similar number now being more than an hour away.
But the impact assessment states that 29% will remain within 30 minutes of the closest court by public transport (more than 80% will be able to reach it by car). There is a ‘smaller impact’ on Crown and county courts, and a ‘negligible impact’ for tribunals.
Heaton said: ‘What is reasonable can vary depending on location and on the type of work undertaken in a particular building. In some cases, the ministry will make alternative provision for certain types of users or in certain locations, such as part-time use of a local authority or other public building.’
A spokesperson for HM Courts and Tribunals Service told the Gazette: 'We have a world-leading legal system and are investing over £1bn to reform and digitise our courts to deliver swifter justice.
'Closing underused and dilapidated court buildings will allow us to reinvest in the justice system and make the best use of technology. This will improve access to justice and improve the experience for all court users, in particular vulnerable victims and witnesses.
'We are committed to ensuring a reasonable travel time to court and, after closures are complete, we estimate that 97% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car.'
Heaton's letter was in response to a series of questions raised during an evidence session on the ministry’s latest annual report and accounts.
He confirmed that the lease on the ministry’s headquarters in Petty France, London, expires in December 2028. The ministry employed the full-time equivalent of 64,751 staff (as at 30 September). It had 2,768 agency staff.