Justice minister Shailesh Vara has told dissenting MPs that the government is not going to change its mind on plans to shut 86 courts across England and Wales.
Vara (pictured) faced a barrage of questions in the House of Commons from MPs of all parties upset at the closure of facilities in their constituencies.
Opponents included Chichester’s Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, who described the decision to close the city’s courts as a ‘not a policy, but a negation of a policy’. Other representatives from North Durham, Hartlepool, Halifax, Wakefield, Bermondsey and Torbay also made their case for a rethink, in a debate secured by Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes, who is campaigning against the closure of the court in Lambeth.
Tyrie said: ‘Everyone understands the need for financial stringency, but no economic rationale for these closures has been provided, despite repeated requests. Until such a rationale is provided, people will continue to be deeply concerned about the closures.’
Shadow justice minister Christina Rees said the proposals were based on a ‘flawed consultation process’ that called into question the basis for closing all 86 courts.
But Vara insisted ‘there comes a point when we have to start taking decisions and agree to disagree’.
He said: ‘This whole programme started before last year’s summer recess, and we had a lengthy consultation period. I have had numerous debates and met more people in the House than I can remember.
‘There has been a huge dialogue, but there must be some recognition that we have listened and made changes in a huge number of cases.’
Vara said he had met Tyrie so many times to discuss the court closure plan he ‘dreaded’ entering the Commons tea room on the chance he might bump into him.
‘I think he will agree that I have tried to give him the best information I can, but on the final conclusion he wants, we will have to agree to disagree,’ said the minister.
‘The government have listened carefully, which is why, in addition to the five court buildings we have retained, we have modified our initial plans for a further 22 sites.’
Vara said decisions were not taken lightly, but were necessary to support essential reform of the courts and tribunals system and bring it up to modern standards.
He added that £700m will be invested over the next four years to ‘transform’ the experience of everyone coming into contact with courts and tribunals.
But he refused to give details about the ‘precise minutiae and breakdown’ of the investment, telling one Labour MP that in a four-year programme with such a large sum involved, ‘the figures might not be as precise as he would like them to be at the initial stage’.
Vara added: ‘We will provide new services and deliver better, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system. These reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier to use and more efficient.’
Asked about the 10 courts closed under the previous programme of closures, Vara said one had been disposed of, with the remainder likely to be transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency, a quango answerable to the Department for Communities and Local Government.