Proposals to close two busy London courts threaten to waste the investment in them and relocate work to inadequate alternatives, Chancery Lane has said in response to plans to shut Camberwell Green and Hammersmith magistrates’ courts. The closures could also create a risk to public safety and come before any analysis of previous closures, Chancery Lane said.
The announcement to close the facilities came last month and was in addition to existing plans to shut 86 courts and tribunals across England and Wales.
Consultation closed last month, and in its response to the Ministry of Justice the Law Society urges ministers to pause before making any reductions to the courts estate.
The Society says the MoJ consultation focuses only on additional traveling distances, while missing key factors such as the impact, cost and safety implications of requiring victims, witnesses and defendant to travel outside their local area.
It says both courts, which have specific facilities for young offenders, already handle a high volume of cases and act as overspill courts for work coming in from elsewhere in London. At Hammersmith, Westminster and City of London Magistrates’ Courts, part of the same group defendants are currently waiting up to four months for a hearing. ‘If these courts are to consolidate and absorb the work currently undertaken at Hammersmith the delay in listing will only be exacerbated by this proposal,’ the response states.
Traveling to Croydon – listed as an alternative to Camberwell – would almost double the cost if taking public transport, while police will also incur greater time and costs taking prisoners further afield.
A further tranches of closures would impact young people in particular, with the youth courts at Balham and Lewisham having shut in recent years.
The Law Society also notes that gangs are an intrinsic feature to more serious youth offending, with fights and rivalry often geographically motivated.
‘Witnesses in cases may belong to other gangs and would be in the same vulnerable position as defendants in the event that they are required to travel outside of their supposed territory to attend court,’ adds the response. The Society questions the option to relocate young people from Hammersmith in west London to a court in north London, citing threats in recent years of potential violence on court property perpetrated by rival gangs.
‘This could be perceived as territorial encroachment. Any option which raises a risk to public safety should be considered very carefully.’
The Society suggests volunteer initiatives would be at risk if courts were relocated: the Southwark Youth Offending Panel is located just over a mile from Camberwell and removing a local facility would have a ‘significant and detrimental impact’ on the operation of existing community partnerships.
The response also notes that alternative sites need even the basic of improvements, including wifi internet access, plug sockets and locakable rooms for advocates. At the same time, Camberwell, which has a utilisation rate of 71%, received an investment of public money as recently as May this year.