MPs with experience of court closures on their doorstep have pleaded with ministers to halt current plans for further consolidation of the estate.
The Ministry of Justice finishes consulting later this month on eight closures across five regions, which would add to the 200 courts and tribunals closed since 2011.
Justice secretary David Gauke, speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, said closures were only carried out where the government is satisfied that access to justice is maintained, with online solutions and video hearings making that principle easier to achieved.
That was not the experience of MPs with constituencies where courts closed in 2016, Gauke was told.
Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, said she had raised concerns for two years before the decision was taken to close Lambeth County Court.
She said: ‘My constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing.’
Ruth George, MP for High Peak in Derbyshire, explained her constituents now have to travel 40 miles on a one-and-a-half-hour trip to court in Chesterfield, following the closure of Buxton’s court.
She added: ‘The police say that it now takes them a whole day to take someone to court, whereas it used to take less than half a day, and that is having an impact on the number of offenders they can bring to court and on justice in my area.’
Gauke offered little assurance that courts earmarked for closure may be reprieved, repeating that these changes are the important modernisation that the court system needs.
The lord chancellor added: ‘The reality is that we are undertaking a series of reforms, making much greater use of digital technology and increasing access to online ways of dealing with this.
‘We also have to take into account the fact that 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity during the financial year 2016-17, and across the country courts are utilised at 58% of their capacity. In those circumstances, where resources are scarce we have to make decisions about the reforms we undertake.’