Courts forced to pick up the slack from the closure of others are struggling to cope with the extra burden, district judges have reported. The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges, which represents more than 400 members of the bench, says that city centre facilities such as Manchester Civil Justice Centre are ill-equipped to deal with the workload arising from the closure of satellite courts.
In a highly critical written submission to the Commons justice committee on the government's courts reform programme, the association’s vice president District Judge Richard Lumb calls for ‘independent and rigorous evaluation’ of how the closures plan has worked in practice.
He highlighted Manchester Civil Justice Centre, the biggest court outside London, as an example of a site dealing with overspill from closures at Oldham, Tameside, Altrincham, Bolton and Bury.
To operate 22 courtrooms for 27 district judges HM Courts & Tribunals Service has sought to implement a new listing system, but Lumb says this will not work in the long-term.
‘Opposition to the proposal was interpreted by HMCTS (and senior judiciary, who were largely unaffected by the proposal) as “territorialism” and an unwillingness to adapt,’ he states. ‘In reality, opposition was based primarily on a reasoned argument against the constant relocation of DJs (sometimes more than once in the course of a day) in a building in which courts are spread over seven floors (three of which are currently dedicated DJ floors) served by two lifts which are prone to regular breakdowns and even when working are unacceptably slow – serving as they do a 13-floor building.’
Lumb said litigants have also experienced problems getting to Sheffield, Bournemouth and Durham when satellite courts have closed.
There is a ‘clear perception’ among DJs in Manchester that waiting times for listing hearings have increased, and there is now the danger of damaging judicial morale and increasing absences through stress, Lumb states. ‘There is already a chronic shortage of DJs and Deputies nationwide without exacerbating the position through risks to health or fed up office holders electing to retire early.’
The justice committee is publishing written evidence before calling witnesses to give evidence about wider court reforms.
On court closures, the Ministry of Justice last week published its strategy for the court estate, saying future proposals would be based on ‘reasonable’ journey times and whether the ‘overwhelming majority’ of users could leave home no earlier than 7.30am and return by 7.30pm.