Further court closures are almost certain as the justice system moves towards a digitised future, the lord chief justice told MPs today.
Giving evidence today before the justice select committee today, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said the closures are politically controversial but may be necessary to best deploy resources.
The government has almost finished its programme of 86 closures of courts and tribunals throughout England and Wales but speculation remains that numbers may be trimmed further.
‘Inevitably there are certain areas I suspect where there will be the need for further court closures,’ said Thomas.
‘In the end it is a question of how radical are we prepared to be in providing a much better service or do we spend the money on maintaining buildings which are under-utilised?’
The lord chief justice, who retires next month, reflected on his final annual report and sung the praises of the court modernisation plan.
He insisted this £1bn programme was subject to ‘ruthless checking’ for any signs of waste or mistakes. He reflected on progress in building a dispute resolution service to ensure common processes will be the same across the board, and in developing guides for litigants who do have the benefit of a lawyer.
Thomas added: ‘One of the great achievements of the past year and a half has been the fact that if you go into a criminal court you don’t see much paperwork because it has gone paperless. ‘We will get there, but it does require, and I am so grateful to my colleagues and to HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice, radical thinking.’
Thomas was pressed on government plans to try out early and evening sessions as part of the flexible operating hours pilot coming later this year in selected criminal and civil courts.
The judge acknowledged one of the greatest problems facing the profession and the judiciary was the retention of working mothers – a problem which critics have said will be exacerbated by extended hours.
But again Thomas was happy to back the government, adding: ‘You want to be sure you can give people that degree of certainty so they can make the arrangements to prepare cases properly and can make requisite arrangements at home. I think it is worth experimenting.’