Concerns over the closure of magistrates courts

Author: Andrew Costello

Since 2010, over half of all magistrates courts have closed.

Figures published by the House of Commons library show that of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales, 162 - 50.2% of the estate - have shut and most have been sold.

The closures are part of a controversial Ministry of Justice (MOJ) efficiency exercise to meet the £1.2 billion cost of implementing a digital modernisation programme. Authorities are trying to roll out virtual hearings in criminal cases and encourage more people to lodge divorces and other claims online.

Treasury funding for the courts digital programme stipulates that a third of the cost must be met by selling courthouses. So far, the sale of court buildings has raised around £223 million.

All criminal cases are heard in magistrates’ courts where they’re dealt with by a judge or transferred to crown courts. In some cases, the closures have left defendants, witnesses, judges, police and solicitors having to travel more than 50 miles to access local justice.

Although the MoJ claims it’s reinvesting the money raised from selling court buildings into modernising the justice system, many are at odds with the move, claiming that there’s a mounting justice crisis.

Critics have suggested that long travel times are encouraging defendants and witnesses not to attend court. Although it concedes figures rose last year, the MoJ disputes this, stating the rate of defendant non-appearances didn’t change at the time most closures were enforced.

The justice select committee has launched an inquiry into the impact of the closures and access to justice and how far online systems and video hearings can be “a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.

HM Courts and Tribunals and the MoJ are defending the closure programme on the grounds that crime rates have fallen and large numbers of courthouses are operating at less than 40% capacity. It believes making greater use of technology will mean less people will have to travel to court.

Andy Costello, a partner in Russell & Russell’s crime department, said: “While everyone is all for modernising the system, access to justice is a fundamental principle of the British legal system. Closing court houses and making people travel miles and miles is hampering the judicial process. It’s particularly frustrating when cases that can be heard in local courts, which are still operational, are moved to courts a considerable distance away.”

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