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HM Courts and Tribunals Service

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2015

I am delighted that we have secured over £700 million of funding to invest in our courts and tribunals. We have worked closely with the senior judiciary to develop a plan to reform our courts system so that it delivers swifter and fairer justice for everyone in England and Wales at a lower cost.

My constituents in Ogmore face the closure of two local courts: one at Pontypridd in the neighbouring constituency and one in Bridgend. How does the Minister respond to the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, when he warns that:

“Combined with the further planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.”?

It is important in the 21st century that we recognise that a third of the 460 court and tribunal buildings are utilised at a rate of less than 50%. Many of the buildings are not fit for purpose, are listed or are not in compliance with equalities legislation. There is a host of problems and the cost of running the buildings is phenomenal. We need a reformed, up-to-date and modern courts system, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will provide access to justice for all.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that it is high time, as we are in the 21st century, that we updated outdated court practices, with particular regard to the way in which those with learning disabilities are treated in the system?

Absolutely. As a consequence of the £700 million investment that we received in the spending review, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient Courts and Tribunals Service. Reform of the service is crucial to enable much more efficient access to justice for everyone, including people with learning difficulties. In the one nation Britain that we seek, we want to ensure that everyone has access to all the public facilities on offer.

As part of the Government’s welcome courts modernisation plans, Cheltenham magistrates court can expect to hear cases from across Gloucestershire, not just from Cheltenham. What measures will be taken to ensure that such courts have the physical and staffing resources they need to deal with the increased case load?

It is already the case that all magistrates court work in Gloucestershire that requires custodial facilities is heard at Cheltenham magistrates court. Should more work be moved to Cheltenham following the outcome of the consultation, the Courts and Tribunals Service will continue to assess the resources that are available at the court to ensure that they meet operational requirements. I should, however, emphasise that no decisions have yet been taken regarding magistrates courts in Gloucestershire.

My constituents in Stockport would probably understand where the Minister is coming from, were their courthouse not down for closure. It is one of the busiest in Greater Manchester, was refurbished as recently as 2010 and has specialist facilities for witness support and protection. Is this not a short-sighted move by the Ministry of Justice? Will he now save Stockport courthouse?

There is nothing short-sighted about having a consultation, the purpose of which is to allow people such as the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to have their say and try to persuade us that, all things considered, the court should be retained. As I said, no decisions have been taken and we are carefully considering all the submissions.

I listen to Tory MPs and Ministers talking constantly about localism. How can this be a form of localism, when people are having to travel 50 or 60 miles to get justice, instead of going to the local court? It is nothing but hypocrisy.

I have the utmost respect for the hon. Gentleman, but may I gently bring him into the 21st century, which he may not be familiar with? We will ensure that with modern technology such as video-conferencing and telephone facilities, people will have access to justice without having to go to court. Access to justice does not mean simply attending a court and the physical building that it represents.

22. I understand the rationale behind court modernisation, as it will help to create a more streamlined and responsive justice system while generating substantial savings for the taxpayer, and I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me to discuss the proposed closure of Stockport court, which is a mutual interest. Following our conversations, will he provide an update on that court’s future, and say whether the proposals that I presented to him, which would mean that that court remained viable, have been considered? (902616)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have met. With this proposed closure of 91 courts, I have tried to make myself available to as many colleagues as possible—as far as I am aware, I have met every person who wanted a meeting. I am seriously considering my hon. Friend’s proposals, and I am grateful to her for submitting them.