Legal professional bodies have called for the government to halt its court closure programme while technology to replace physical justice is fully tested.
The Ministry of Justice last week closed a consultation on proposals to shut eight court buildings across England in the latest attempt to consolidate the courts estate.
The affected buildings are Banbury Magistrates’ Court, Maidenhead Magistrates’ Court, Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, Chorley Magistrates’ Court, Fleetwood Magistrates’ Court, Northallerton Magistrates’ Court, Wandsworth County Court and Blackfriars Crown Court.
The government insists that the legal profession needs to take a ‘broader view’ of what access to justice means for modern users, and consider what cases actually need a physical hearing.
While lawyers practising near to each affected court have made their own case against closures, the Law Society says the whole programme needs to be put on hold while technology for remote justice is tested, evaluated and proven to work.
‘There has been no proper assessment of what physical infrastructure will still be needed after new technologies are in place,’ said president Joe Egan. ‘If current proposals are implemented unchanged, people will lose access to their local courts and potentially have to travel hundreds of miles to alternative sites.’
The Society’s response stresses that closures have serious practical and cost implications for victims, parties and witnesses: police and prison delivery services may face extra costs, lawyers on legal aid rates must absorb extra travel costs and time, and hearings may be ineffective if witnesses cannot attend.
In its consultation response, the Magistrates Association said victims and witnesses must always have the choice to give evidence in person or remotely, and that taking away their local court removes that choice. The group expresses misgivings about the use of alternative buildings, requiring the provision of extra security staff, separate waiting rooms and extra conference areas.
There is also concern at the potential ‘devaluing’ of local justice, with magistrates sitting further from their niehgbourhoods and news organisations less likely to cover court proceedings if they cannot easily get to local courts.
‘We have serious concerns that more court closures and increased use of technology as a default will fundamentally undermine the fairness and effectiveness of the system,’ said the association. ‘More research is needed to fully understand any negative impacts on fair participation and therefore the legitimacy of the system as a result of removing physical access to hearings.’