The Ministry of Justice plans to close 77 more courts over the next seven years, as the ongoing modernisation programme renders them surplus to requirements.
The figure, which court officials say is still an estimate, is revealed in the latest update from public spending watchdog the National Audit Office on progress of the £1bn Transforming Courts and Tribunals project.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service has already closed 127 sites in England and Wales, generating £124m through property sales, since the start of estates reform in 2015.
A further 96 were earmarked for closure by 2021/22, the update reveals, but that number has been reduced to 77 and the completion date put back by four years. The current plan is for six closures in the current financial year, eight in 2020/21 and 17 in 2021/22.
Commenting on the proposed closures, a spokesperson for HMCTS said: 'We have always been clear that our reform programme will result in the need for fewer court buildings, however no further closures are currently proposed and this will only happen when there is sound evidence.
'The decision to close any court is always carefully considered and, if a service is moved outside the local area, will follow a full public consultation with all those affected guaranteed access to alternative nearby courts.'
The NAO update states that total revenue from planned sales will fall from £153m to £130m, but future closures still depend on the extent to which HMCTS can reduce demand by moving hearings out of court and improving efficiency.
At present, delays with other reform projects mean it is not yet able to evidence a decrease in demand for physical court space.
The NAO, which last reported on the transform programme in May 2018, notes that HMCTS is about half-way through its reform timetable and has started to change how it runs the service. Divorce, civil money claims and probate services are fully or partly online and the first two courts and tribunals service centres are open, centralising support for court users.
By the end of March 2019, with 54% of outcomes completed, HMCTS had spent £540m and recorded net savings of £133m for the previous three years. Spending is less than expected because delays in completing projects have meant that fewer staff than expected have left, reducing redundancy payments.
While progress has been made and the completion date deferred a year to December 2023, the NAO says the project is still behind schedule and faces a ‘significant’ challenge to come in on time and on budget – even after cancelling two projects that were originally part of the programme.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said today: ‘HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services, but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions. The timescale and scope remain ambitious and HMCTS must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.’
Susan Acland-Hood, HMCTS chief executive, said more than 300,000 people have used new online services and the new centres have made it easier and quicker to access help. She added: ‘This is an ambitious and challenging programme but is already making a significant difference. We will continue to listen and learn, working closely with our stakeholders to improve and ensure reform delivers the full benefits to all those who use our justice system.'
Richard Atkins QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: 'This modernisation programme must not become the HS2 of the justice system. HMCTS’ Court reform programme has once again come under critical examination by the National Audit Office and once again it has been found wanting. Whilst the Bar Council is relieved to see that the planned court closures have been scaled back, we have previously expressed considerable concern about the lack of access to justice for people who find that they live many miles from their nearest court, and we remain concerned over the future.
'HMCTS clearly needs to look very carefully at its modernisation programme. Whilst the aims are laudable, HMCTS must ensure that it does not put justice beyond the reach of many, or that costs rise and negate any supposed benefits from the proposed court closures.'