Just one complaint has been made about the consultation process for court closures, a minister said this week, despite the government admitting to a string of errors in calculations underpinning the exercise.
A written answer in the House of Commons from justice minister Shailesh Vara (pictured) revealed that a single complaint has been lodged since the announcement that 86 courts will close.
The original consultation had identified 91 courts that could be closed, but in its response the Ministry of Justice admitted several errors concerning journey times and facilities at suggested alternative courts.
The only complaint, received by email, was from a member of the judiciary and related to the closure of St Albans County Court. The complainant noted the consultation document was inaccurate as it stated that no enabling work was required at the replacement court, Watford County Court.
Vara said the MoJ’s written response had changed this inaccuracy and the published document was now correct.
‘During the consultation process we were notified about inaccuracies in the consultation documents,’ he said. ‘These have all been corrected in the published response documents. All decisions were based on correct information together with the careful consideration of the consultation responses.’
Other mistakes in the consultation relating to courts set for closure included:
- stating that Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court and Family Court was used at 44% capacity. The actual figure was 59%;
- mistakenly identifying a regular train service between Bury St Edmunds and Norwich;
- not taking into account that East London Tribunal Hearing Centre used the facilities at Colchester County Court for 51 days during the first six months of 2015/16;
- wrongly calculating the number of hearing rooms at King's Lynn County Court and Family Court; and
- stating that Buxton Magistrates’ and County Court has no public lift, when in fact it does.
Christina Rees, Labour's shadow courts minister, said the process raises 'serious questions' over plans for court closures and on access to justice overall.
'It is ridiculous that the government's court closure consultation seems to have been riddled with basic errors and inaccuracies,' she added.
Meanwhile, one local authority has written to the MoJ in a last-ditch attempt to keep some local provision of court services.
Morpeth County Court will close later this year, with most court users in Northumberland being directed to facilities in Newcastle.
Northumberland County Council has written to the MoJ offering to host courts in council buildings for social care proceedings to prevent what it calls ‘unacceptable’ delays.
Councillor Grant Davey, leader of the authority, said: ‘The court in Newcastle is already struggling with the amount of work it currently has, so this could lead to delays in proceedings for our officers having to travel even further to other courts such as Sunderland. From Alnwick to Newcastle alone that’s a 70-mile round trip.
‘The decision is very disappointing and the impact will undoubtedly be felt across the county.’