Lawyers have warned that government proposals to close nearly a third of the courts in England and Wales could threaten access to justice and increase pressure on legal aid practitioners.
In a consultation launched last week, the Courts Service proposed shutting 157 out of 530 courts. It said the plan would save £15.3m a year in running costs.
Christina Blacklaws, child care representative on the Law Society Council, advised the government to ‘proceed with caution’. Blacklaws accepted that cuts have to made: ‘If they can bring about efficiency savings that enable more frontline services to be protected that’s welcome.’
However, she challenged the government’s view that greater use of IT would reduce the number of courts needed. ‘Historically, the Courts Service hasn’t had a successful implementation of any IT plan.’
More importantly, Blacklaws said, the move could affect vulnerable court users in criminal and family cases. ‘In all care cases parties initially have to make their way to the local court. Going further away can be intimidating, difficult and expensive, so for some no local justice will mean no justice at all.’
The Magistrates Association said the proposals could ‘threaten one of the fundamental principles’ of the justice system – ‘local justice delivered by ordinary citizens in the communities where offences are committed’. While courts that are unfit for purpose or infrequently used should not continue to be a drain on limited resources, the association warned that longer journeys to court for victims, witnesses and defendants might deter people from attending.
Closures could be a particular burden to legal aid firms, Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Law Society criminal law committee, said. ‘It’s a shame this information wasn’t put into the public domain prior to firms deciding whether or not to put in bids in the recent tender process. It is hard for firms to plan their businesses, which are operating on limited margins. They are not being paid for travelling and could now find their local magistrates’ court is 20 or 30 miles away,’ he added.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson described the consultation as a ‘sensible step’ but warned the government not to lose sight of the fact that people need proper access to local courts.