19:14, September 12 60 0 theguardian.com

2019-09-12 19:14:04
77 more courts in England and Wales to close

Nearly 80 more courts in England and Wales are due to close under a justice transformation scheme that is falling behind schedule, a watchdog’s report has revealed.

HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is three years into a £1bn programme of changes but is facing significant delays and failing to take into account the experiences of court users, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

“HMCTS has made good progress in reforming some services but it is behind where it expected to be and has had to scale back its ambitions,” said Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO. “The timescale and scope remain ambitious and [it] must maintain a strong grip if it is to deliver a system that works better for everyone and delivers savings for the taxpayer.”

The modernisation programme will include an increase in the use of “virtual hearings” in criminal cases, with judges and magistrates dealing with defendants from a police station or prison using a video link.

The report reveals a surprisingly high number of courts are being considered for closure by HMCTS, which reports to the Ministry of Justice. A total of 77 courts are currently scheduled to be shut down; until recently as many as 96 had been earmarked for closure.

Since 2010 more than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have stopped hearing cases, forcing defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and justices of the peace to travel more than 50 miles in some cases to access local justice. A further 133 tribunal, crown, county and family courts have also closed over the same period.

Many courts sit idle because of cost-saving measures which have reduced the number of recorders, or part-time judges. Last week, Lady Justice Macur, the senior presiding judge, said maintaining the backlog of cases by not employing more recorders to hear waiting cases “was a political decision”. Eleven out of 18 courts at the Old Bailey, for example, were empty on Thursday.

The NAO’s report says savings to date of £133m might not all be attributable to the changes. The courts service can only track certain savings, such as those related to property costs, the report adds.

The report says HMCTS has not given sufficient consideration to concerns about access to justice.

The Labour MP Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, said: “A government transformation plan off-track and scaled back is a broken record. HMCTS has not bucked this trend. It must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice.”

Penelope Gibbs, the director of the campaign group Transform Justice, said: “Is our court closure programme just an exercise in selling off the family silver? More than half our magistrates courts have been closed since 2010 but this NAO report reveals for the first time that the government plans to close around 80 more courts. The funds generated will be used to take justice out of the courtroom and on to Skype and mobile phones. But, as the NAO points out, we don’t actually know whether these changes will help or hinder access to justice.”

Susan Acland-Hood, the chief executive of the HMCTS, highlighted the positive elements of the NAO report. “We are pleased the NAO has recognised the progress we have made towards a more accessible and efficient justice system,” she said. “More than 300,000 people have now used our online services, and two new service centres are making it easier and quicker for all to access help.

“This is an ambitious and challenging programme but is already making a significant difference. We will continue to listen and learn, working closely with our stakeholders to improve and ensure reform delivers the full benefits to all those who use our justice system.”

John Bache, the national chair of the Magistrates Association, said: “We strongly support the recommendation of this report that HM Courts and Tribunals Service should better demonstrate how it is monitoring the impact of its reforms on users of the justice system. We recognise the need to deliver savings as part of the reform programme, but it is essential that in doing so the experience of those who use the courts does not deteriorate.

“We are also concerned that a further 77 courts are due to be closed. Justice should, wherever possible, be administered locally and many courts are already worryingly remote from the communities that they serve.”

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