Future court closures should be based on the principle that people who need to go to court should not have to leave their home before 7.30am and should be back by 7.30pm, the government has said. More than a year after consulting on a revised strategy and approach to reforming the court and tribunal estate, the Ministry of Justice finally published its response today.
More than 200 consultation responses were received. Justice secretary David Gauke said the travel time to and from court generated the largest response, with many deeply concerned about a 'benchmark that lacked specificity'. The ministry had proposed users should be able to attend court on time and return 'within a day'.
Future proposals will now be based on 'reasonable' journey times. The ministry will consider whether the 'overwhelming majority’ of users would be able to leave home no earlier than 7.30am and return by 7.30pm using public transport if necessary. The difficulty of the journey will be considered, including the frequency of public transport and the number of changes required, as well as travel costs.
The hearing's start or end times could be varied, subject to judicial approval, where a court closure affects a small number of people facing longer journey times.
The ministry says it will conduct 'real-world' travel time assessments with software that aggregates real journey times relevant to the appropriate times of day. Proposals to close a court will not be made until there is 'sufficient evidence' that the estate rationalisation will work.
The ministry is keen to highlight in its response document that the court estate 'remains accessible to the majority of people', pointing out that 245 are within five miles, 280 are within 10 miles and 304 are within 15 miles of another court or tribunal. These distances, the ministry says, 'means that the majority of users will not face onerous journeys'.
Also published today is a 169-page court and tribunal design guide detailing the vision, principles and minimum standards for refurbishment and new building projects.
Commenting on today’s report, Gauke said: 'Our reform programme allows people to start to settle disputes away from the courtroom, while offering opportunities to improve our courts and tribunals. With new technology and modern ways of working, we expect the number of people accessing our courts remotely to increase. We are reviewing the current estate to ensure it is fit for purpose.
'This report makes sure that access to justice, value for money and efficiency are maintained in the long term and these principles will mean our justice system remains fit for the 21st century.'
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said the issue of travel times, 'not adequately addressed in the government's response', will only worsen with court closures, adding that what is considered a 'reasonable' journey could, in fact, be a number of hours.