Justice secretary Michael Gove has said there will be further court closures as he seeks to build a more efficient and streamlined justice system.
In his maiden speech since taking on the role, Gove said the government is reviewing the existing court estate and will shut those that are not running close to capacity.
The government closed 142 courts in the last parliament but Gove said more than a third are still sitting for less than than 50% of their available hours, with the ‘ageing and ailing’ court estate taking around one-third of the entire courts and tribunals budget.
‘At a time when every government department has to find savings its makes more sense to deliver a more efficient court estate than, for example, make further big changes to the legal aid system,’ he said.
‘We are going to have to close some courts. Some are dramatically underused. The important test is to do so in a way which improves access to justice.’
Gove later told the House of Commons the number of closures would be ‘significant’ and the Ministry of Justice will seek the best value for money in their disposal, admitting the department had previously taken decisions which were ’not always the right thing’.
In a wide-ranging speech and subsequent press conference, Gove also promised a review of ongoing criminal legal aid reforms and said there are no plans for further cuts on top of those already announced.
But he called on those members of the legal profession who have ‘done well’ to contribute more to ensuring access to justice. Pressed on whether this would mean further calls on lawyers to act pro bono, he said the MoJ is working on a scheme to make that happen.
‘Those who have benefitted financially from our legal culture need to invest in its roots. That is why I believe that more could - and should - be done by the most successful in the legal profession to help protect access to justice for all.’
Having already outlined details of plans to improve efficiency in the criminal courts, he also backed the idea of an online dispute resolution scheme for civil justice as envisaged by professor Richard Susskind, sending litigants away from court to settle disputes using online arbiters.
He added: ‘The current system adds to stress at times of need, and restricts access to high-quality resolution of disputes by simply being too complex, too bureaucratic and too slow.
‘Across our court and tribunal system we need to challenge whether formal hearings are needed at all in many cases, speed up decision-making, give all parties the ability to submit and consider information online, and consider simple issues far more proportionately.’