The Civil Justice Council has said it is ‘broadly supportive’ of the government’s court closures plan – but urged ministers to consider local people’s views before shutting facilities.
The independent body, led by master of the rolls Lord Dyson, said the proposals to shut 91 courts across England and Wales (see pictured map) is in line with the courts reform programme and its aims.
But in its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation, which closed earlier this month, the CJC noted opposition from some users to the closure of their local court, and raised the issue of travel times for people without a car.
‘Local knowledge is paramount, and the CJC would urge the government to pay particular heed to the responses from local communities and their representatives and the detailed cases that they may make for the retention of a particular court building,’ the response said.
It urged ‘special concern’ for rural and less populated areas and the prospects of using buses or trains to access alternative venues. In particular, it cited Cumbria and north Wales as areas where travel might be difficult.
Any increase in travel times has the potential to deter those considering bringing or defending a claim and will also increase the costs of litigation and place a greater burden on public servants such as the police who are required to attend court, it said.
The CJC also urged the government to consider carefully the idea of using other civic buildings as courts and whether they are suitable for certain types of cases.
But there was support for the plan to reinvest the money made from the closure programme - estimated at around £35m by the MoJ - on the remainder of the courts estate.
The CJC reiterated its support for the digitisation of courts and provision of online dispute resolution for lower value civil claims, which may in future mean people have less need to attend court. The CJC said proceeds from court estate sales should help to provide a ‘robust’ IT system and ensure good quality broadband in all remaining facilities.
'The modern court estate must not only be aligned to local needs, but also be based on the needs of court users today, whether that takes the form of a court building with investment in up‐to‐date technology or virtual courts,’ added the response.
The MoJ is expected to publish its decision on this round of court closures by the end of the year.