Impact of court closures likely to impede access to justice for many

After the consultation on court closures, the decision has been taken to close 86 out of the 91 courts initially identified. This represents a reprieve for just 5.

However, the Law Society thought there were good reasons to save 59 courts so how can the Ministry of Justice justify such swingeing?

The 86 courts to be closed represent around one-fifth of the court estate in England and Wales. At the same time, the MOJ is also closing 75% of its buildings, going from 800 down to less than 200.

The MoJ claims that 97% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour(!) by car even after the closures and that the closures will still provide “effective access to justice” and “high-quality service provision”. Where does that leave the elderly or the disabled or others without easy access to the remaining courts?

Speaking at the House of Commons this week, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, did not appear to agree with the MoJ’s attempts to swell government coffers at significant personal cost to Court staff and the public in general.

Lord Thomas stated that the civil justice system needs an immediate redesign to “start again”. He also criticised court fee increases, which he suggests makes civil justice “unaffordable to most”.

Lord Thomas also supports the proposals put forward in Lord Justice Briggs’ interim report, which include virtual hearings and an online court, the modernisation of the court system and processes designed for use without a lawyer.

Lord Justice Briggs’ final report on civil justice reform is due to be published in July, and Lord Thomas has suggested it would be likely to require primary legislation. This must beg the question, why the indecent haste to rush through this decision now?

In the short term, it seems inevitable that these changes will only cause further delays which in turn will make it even harder for parties to gain access to justice.