The Law Society has urged the government to save almost two-thirds of courts earmarked for closure after solicitors reported a host of worries about the plans.
In an extensive response to the Ministry of Justice call for evidence, the Society said solicitors had made a convincing argument to reprieve 59 of the 91 courts planned for closure across England and Wales. There is also a case to modify plans for a further five.
To ignore solicitors’ views, the response said, would adversely affect local communities, the justice system and the legal profession.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘A majority of these proposed court closures will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court, and the closures will more adversely affect people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.’
He added that combined with the planned increases in civil court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to ‘deepen the inequalities’ between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
The Society said in some cases solicitors will be unable to meet the requirements of their legal aid contracts, leaving clients who qualify for help unable to receive it. Some criminal solicitors reported they would withdraw their legal aid tenders altogether if local courts were closed.
The Society said it had concerns about the method for calculating alternative journey times and that for many people attending court will be too expensive or take too long.
Solicitors reported they were dubious about the travel times in the Ministry of Justice proposals, which failed to take account of local geography or transport infrastructure.
The extra workload of the remaining courts, it is pointed out, has yet to be calculated or accounted for, and there are concerns about increased waiting times and delays.
The response cited a ‘worrying number’ of factual errors in the consultation, which included working out usage figures based on the wrong number of courtrooms, and justifying a court be closed as it lacks technology, when in fact the technology has been installed.
The alternative of using other public buildings is said to be untested, with issues such as security, witness/victim segregation, interview rooms and technology unresolved.
The Society also suggests to the MoJ that it considers re-allocating work from busy courts to courts that are said to be under-used – an option that appears not to have been considered.
The closure programme involves 257 magistrates’ court rooms (23% of all the magistrates’ court rooms in the country), 139 county court rooms, 63 tribunal rooms and 21 crown court rooms.
The MoJ, which closes its consultation today, has said it has not made any final decisions but that closures are needed to save money and improve efficiency.