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Lambeth County Court

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2016

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the proposed closure of Lambeth County Court.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Lambeth county court serves residents across Lambeth and Southwark. I am pleased to be joined here today by hon. Friends whose constituents will also be deeply impacted by the planned closure of that court and to have the opportunity to raise our concerns about the impact on our constituents, on the staff who work at the court, on the lawyers who represent people there and on a wide range of other public sector staff who regularly attend the court, including housing officers and social workers.

Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country, effectively making it a specialist court, and it is situated in an area with one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the country. In addition to housing possession claims, the other types of work undertaken at Lambeth county court are cases concerning children, domestic violence and money claims. The proposal on which the Government consulted was to close Lambeth county court and move all of its business to Wandsworth county court in Putney. That is almost five miles away as the crow flies, but it is a complicated journey on several buses for residents on low incomes who cannot afford the train or tube. East-west journeys in south London are invariably more difficult than journeys into and out of central London.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank the Chair for chairing? For my constituents in Rotherhithe, it will take a minimum of two hours on three different buses just to get to court. The four-hour journey that is potentially being imposed will deter people from attending court and will result in higher appeals.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will make the point later in my speech that the impact of the court’s closure on travel time is, indeed, worse than the impact of court closures proposed in many rural areas of the country.

I am proud that my hon. Friend and I both represent Lambeth. This is a very timely debate. On travel, does she agree that it is not just an issue of cost? Many of our young people are living in an environment where it is quite dangerous to travel great distances, with serious youth violence affecting a significant minority. There is often an issue of safety for young people when they are travelling about in our area.

Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a valid and valuable point. It is some of our most vulnerable residents across the spectrum, including our young people, who will be most significantly impacted by this decision.

I took the opportunity during the consultation period to speak with lawyers from Lambeth and Southwark who represent residents at Lambeth county court about their concerns about the proposed closure. I am grateful to them for the time they took to do that and to the Minister for meeting me during the consultation to discuss those concerns.

The Minister has listened to some of the concerns raised during the consultation, and as a consequence, the proposed closure of Lambeth county court has changed somewhat, such that housing possession hearings will now move not to Putney but to Camberwell magistrates court. I have brought this matter to the House for debate today because that decision will not now be subject to further consultation; because there are important questions about the decision that need to be answered; and because, ultimately, I am not confident that the revised proposal will address all of the concerns raised about the closure of Lambeth county court.

The first area of concern is the impact of the closure on access to justice and the cost of justice for people who will now have to attend court in Putney rather than Kennington. Many people attending court will now be faced with a significantly longer journey, as my hon. Friends have said, and particularly those on low incomes who cannot afford to travel by train or tube. From parts of Lambeth and Southwark, residents will face a round trip of up to four hours on four different buses each way to get to Putney. That is worse than the impact on travel time of some of the court closures proposed in rural areas.

I know how difficult many of my constituents find it simply to get to other parts of Lambeth and Southwark to access services such as the citizens advice bureau. Indeed, I helped to arrange a CAB outreach service on one of my estates because it was so difficult for residents there to travel to other parts of the borough. My worry with a much longer, more complex journey to court is that many residents simply will not make it at all. The attrition in attendance experienced at family courts following a previous closure programme and the subsequent inefficiencies has been clearly documented and was raised with me only this morning by the borough commander in Lambeth. The consequence is that a theoretical cash saving on paper is translated in reality into either cases being delayed, causing additional expense to the public purse, or residents not having the opportunity to give evidence at their own hearing, therefore denying them access to justice.

The second area of concern is the loss of specialism at Lambeth county court. Lawyers who work in my constituency tell me that one reason the court works comparatively well is that it is effectively a specialist housing court. That specialism extends from the judges to the clerks, and means that cases are dealt with quickly and effectively, given the application of expertise built up over many years. The loss of that specialism at a time when the housing crisis is growing in London, the number of evictions in the private rented sector is growing and the Government are reducing the security of tenure of residents in social housing would, in my view, be a terrible shame.

A third area of concern is the potential impact of the closure on the duty solicitor scheme in Lambeth. The current duty solicitor service is staffed by dedicated legal aid lawyers who have chosen to stay in that area of law as legal aid has been cut, earning very modest pay, in order that they can represent the most vulnerable residents and ensure that those residents receive justice. The lawyers I have spoken to who work within that scheme tell me that the margins are so extremely narrow that the significant additional travel time associated with a move to Putney could easily mean the collapse of the current scheme because it will no longer be viable. I am extremely concerned about what that will mean for residents who have been able to rely on representation from trusted local law centres and legal aid firms for many years and, again, the impact on access to justice.

A fourth area of concern is the impact of the move on the public sector, and particularly the social work services of Lambeth and Southwark. If cases involving children are now to be heard in Putney, social workers who have to go to court will face a trebling of their current journey time. Those are the same social workers who have very heavy case loads and who work to support many vulnerable families who are already stretched and on whom the current cuts to council budgets are taking a heavy toll. I do not believe that the impact of the proposal on that area of the public sector has been considered at all, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.

A final area of concern about the move to Putney is the heavy reliance in the consultation document on the replacement of physical court facilities with digital services. Of course, there are ways in which new technology can aid the justice system and help to make it more efficient and more transparent. Of course, the use of technology to, for example, avoid the need for victims of crime to come into contact with perpetrators is a good thing.

The consultation document and the Government’s response to the consultation is, however, exceptionally light on detail in that respect. There is no indication of how much of the saving the Government will make from the sale of closed courts and tribunals will be reinvested in new technology. There is no articulation of the services that people should expect to see in their local court. There is no modelling of the anticipated impact of investment in new technology on the Courts and Tribunals Service, and there is no immediate action plan for urgent investment to ensure that technology is in place wherever possible to immediately mitigate the impacts of the closures. Without a detailed plan of action, the statements made about the use of technology are simply warm words.

I turn now to some of my questions about the proposal to move housing possession hearings to Camberwell magistrates court rather than to Putney, which was made in response to the representations made during the consultation process. Although I very much welcome the fact that the Minister has listened and responded to the concerns that have been raised, very little detail has been set out about how exactly the proposal will work. I recently met a number of lawyers from Lambeth Law Centre who confirmed my view that the devil will be in the detail on this proposal, so I ask the Minister today whether he can provide some of that detail.

Camberwell magistrates court is already very busy. It is on a constrained site, and it is not clear how Camberwell will physically be able to accommodate additional housing possession hearings on top of the current volume of cases that are heard there.

I think the words I was looking for before were “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,” Mr Gray—I got that wrong earlier.

My hon. Friend is talking about the assessment that was made of Camberwell. In her discussions with the legal professionals in Southwark and Lambeth, did they also express concern that the assessment of Lambeth’s use was inaccurate? It was undertaken at a time when at least one judge was away and it did not take into account all the rooms that are used in preparation for court hearings.

Concerns have absolutely been raised that the figures used to underpin the consultation relating to usage levels at Lambeth county court were not, in fact, accurate at all.

On the move to Camberwell, it is not clear whether the administrative functions of Lambeth county court in relation to housing possession cases will now be based at Camberwell magistrates court, or whether they will move to Putney and only possession hearings will take place at Camberwell. If the administrative functions move to Putney, there is concern that some vulnerable residents facing eviction will still have to travel to Putney to initiate administrative processes that require attendance in person, such as applying for a stay of eviction. If the administrative functions move to Camberwell, it is imperative that Camberwell does not become overloaded. We know what overloaded courts look like: everyone I have met who has had any experience of the Central London county court since it moved to the royal courts of justice describes it as being like the Chancery Court in Dickens’ novel, “Bleak House”, such are the delays and inefficiencies there.

The detail is important here, and I ask the Minister to respond to the following points in his reply: how many judges will move to Camberwell? How many hearings will transfer to Camberwell? What physical space will be made available at Camberwell? Where will the judges at Camberwell be based when they are not sitting in hearings?

Finally, there is concern that even with housing possession hearings staying closer to the site of the current Lambeth county court, moving the remaining functions to Putney will mean that many vulnerable residents—victims of domestic violence, parents attending custody hearings, residents who are in financial difficulties—will have to travel a long distance on a complicated public transport route to access the justice that they deserve.

I come back to where I began. Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country. Those who deal with it on a regular basis report that it works well in respect of housing and the other work that takes place there. Although there may be theoretical short-term savings to be achieved from its closure, there are very great risks that, as a consequence, justice will become less efficient and less easy to access, particularly for vulnerable residents on low incomes. The consequence of that will only be additional costs to the public sector in the long term.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to the concerns that I and my hon. Friends have raised. Fundamentally, I believe that this closure will have disastrous consequences for my constituents, and I urge him to reconsider it.

May I say what a pleasure it is, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray? I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate—we have met about the matter—and I take the opportunity to put on record that she is an extraordinarily diligent and conscientious Member of Parliament who has spoken up very effectively for her constituents in the short time that she has been an MP. I am pleased to see that we also have the hon. Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) here today, because both of them have written to me and we have corresponded on this issue.

It is absolutely clear from today’s debate that the hon. Lady cares deeply about our courts and the delivery of justice. I want to assure her that I do, too. Before I speak about Lambeth county court, I will mention some general points. The consultation that we have just concluded ran last year and had more than 2,100 responses, all of which were carefully reviewed and analysed. I care about reforming our courts—about moving from places that have changed little since Victorian times to a modern, responsive and flexible system fit for the 21st century.

I echo the Minister’s kind words about my colleagues. I am sure that many of those respondents contacted the Minister and the Department to demonstrate their commitment to justice and modernising justice, but how many of the 2,100 responses agreed that it was sensible to close the court?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise number regarding the 2,100 responses that we received, but it is fair to say that a number of them objected to closures. As I said, we carefully looked at all the responses that were given. If he gives me some time, I will say that we did actually listen to many of the points that were made—if he bears with me, I will come to that.

Despite the best efforts of our staff and the judiciary, the infrastructure that supports the administration of the courts and tribunals is inefficient and disjointed. It uses technology that is now decades old. We offer very few services online and rely on paper forms. We key in data and pass bundles of documents between agencies. When we need to take payment, we can often only accept cash or cheques. We convene physical hearings to discuss matters of process. We need to end the old-fashioned ways of working that create inefficiencies and which make it hard for the public to access justice.

That is why the Government have a significant reform programme in which there will be an investment of some £700 million over the next four years. That will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with the courts and tribunals. New services and new, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system will require a modern infrastructure to support them. The reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier and more efficient.

To achieve those benefits, however, we must make difficult decisions, and deciding to close a court is undoubtedly one of the most difficult. I want to emphasise that we have listened to the responses to the consultation. We have retained four courts and in one further case, we have retained one of the jurisdictions along with the building following the responses that we received. In 22 courts, we have modified the proposal in some way to reduce the impact of the closure on court users—indeed, Lambeth is one of those courts, and I will refer to specific points on that shortly.

In the case of Lambeth county court, the court is poorly used; it is only used for around 40% of its available sitting time. The building is in need of considerable maintenance, including the replacement of air conditioning, lighting and aspects of the heating and hot water system. In many respects, it is simply not fit for purpose as a modern and flexible court building.

As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood mentioned in her speech, she and I had a meeting—I thought it was very productive—following which we were able to engage in conversation with my officials and she was able to liaise with the local council, Southwark council, and there was a very productive dialogue. Unfortunately, after Southwark council had carried out a feasibility study, it came to the conclusion that county court work could not be transferred to its premises, which we were open to considering. I am, however, pleased that following the representations that she and others made, and recognising the enormous number of housing possession cases that are at Lambeth county court, we have managed to shift the work two miles down the road to Camberwell Green magistrates court. I think that is not unreasonable, in that we have listened, and I would like to think that two miles is not a huge distance.

I understand that the closure of a court has a very real impact on the court’s users, staff and judiciary, but I want to make it clear that in England and Wales, the closure of 86 courts will only reduce the proportion of citizens who will be able to reach their nearest civil or family court within an hour by car by 1% and by public transport by 5%. It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the population will never have to attend a court, and for those who do, it is likely to be a rare occurrence.

The issue of access to justice featured prominently in the hon. Lady’s speech. Being able to access courts and tribunals when required is, of course, essential, but effective access to justice is not defined simply by the proximity to a court or tribunal building. It should be defined by how easy it is for court users to access the service they need, however they choose to do that. We want to take advantage of the choice and flexibility that digital technology offers. We will move towards a system in which face-to-face hearings are required only for sensitive and complex cases. Online plea, claims and evidence systems with much wider adoption of video conferencing into court will reduce the need for people to travel to court.

It is not clear to me what the timescale is for the investment of £700 million in new technology, or whether there will be a time lag following the closure of Lambeth county court, the move to Wandsworth and the introduction of the advantages that new technology may be able to bring. Will the Minister set out the timescale and process is a little more detail?

The hon. Lady raises a good point. She will appreciate that I cannot, off the cuff, give her the timetable for Lambeth court, but I can say that it is clearly very important that there is synchronisation between the closure, the transfer of work and the new digital process coming in. Otherwise, there will be an extraordinarily chaotic justice system, which is the last thing any of us want. I assure her that we will be working at pace to ensure the modernisation will work alongside any closures and transfers. She was right to raise the point and I hope I have given her some comfort.

It cannot be right that people are able to transact important aspects of their lives online—for example, completing their tax returns or doing bank transactions—but when interacting with the court having to revert to paper forms and photocopying evidence. I am keenly aware that many people who encounter our justice system do so when they are at their most vulnerable. They may be a victim or witness in a criminal case, or individuals, businesses and families trying to resolve disputes. They may have been recently bereaved or experienced family problems. Whatever the circumstances we need to make better use of technology to provide them with easier access to a more responsive system. This will benefit vulnerable users, with swifter processes and more proportionate services in many cases, which will reduce the need for potentially stressful attendances at court.

Indeed, we have a duty to offer more convenient, less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system while maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.

I am mindful that the hon. Member for Streatham spoke about security and if he wanted to intervene on that, I propose to deal with it now. He raised an important point. At present, we have a system whereby witnesses, victims and defendants can all end up on the same public transport going to the same court. Under the new and reformed court system that we envisage, we hope that evidence can be given from a video conferencing suite, perhaps in a civic building or a local police station. That would be done at an appointed time so the victim and the witness would turn up at a given time. It is likely that that suite would be much closer than the court that is dealing with the case. That must be a better and safer system.

Travel time is mentioned regularly, but given that we are moving to a system with video links, travel times will not be longer and in many cases may be shorter because people will be going to a civic centre or police station to give their evidence. That will reduce cost and time, and will be a lot more convenient.

One problem—there are several—is that the Minister cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) a timeframe for the introduction of the technologies. In his answer just now he used words such as “likely” and “may” do this or that. The problem is that the absence of the technology will create all sorts of problems for our constituents.

My second point is about the data that were collected and formed the background to the consultation. Clearly, they were collected when one of the judges was absent so were not reflective of just how busy Lambeth county court is.

On the data, I assure hon. Members that the decision was based on the correct information. I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, with the best will in the world, consultation on 91 courts requires human beings to put a huge amount of data into documentation. I assure him that the decision was taken on the correct information.

On my use of the words “may” and “will”, the hon. Gentleman should look at our track record. During the consultation, I met the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. Following our meeting, there was instant dialogue between my officials and Southwark council. While the consultation was still proceeding, the council came to the conclusion that it was unable to accommodate what we wanted.

It would be unreasonable for the hon. Gentleman to expect me to give a specific time, date or month. All I can say is that when we are putting in place a £700 million-plus programme of court reform throughout England and Wales, he must take it on trust that we will do our damnedest to make sure everything fits in and is timely and orderly because, if it is not, there will be one massive chaotic justice system, which is the last thing I want.

I note the absence of a specific timeframe, which is unfortunate. Perhaps the Minister will write to my hon. Friends about that. Where is the assessment of the new costs to the police and councils of providing space for the video conferencing that the Minister mentioned?

On journey times, can the Minister tell us what percentage of cases he expects members of the public will still have to attend? In my constituency, there is a growing number of controlled parking zones. Thousands of people are not allowed to own a car where they live so a massive number of people will still be expected to use public transport and, as I have said, a round trip from Rotherhithe in the rush hour will take around four hours.

I am mindful that I have about two and a half minutes and I am keen for the hon. Lady to have a few minutes to sum up.

In response to the hon. Gentleman, 20 years ago it was unthinkable that people would be accessing banking services from the comfort of their kitchen table or their sitting room. They did not know they would be able to access the Inland Revenue and file their tax return from the comfort of their home. It is important to recognise that proximity to justice does not mean being in a physical building called a court. We already have online transactions taking place. We will do our best to ensure that the £700 million-plus programme works apace and that we deliver the service that we want for a 21st-century justice system that is fit for purpose.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate and I hope I have given her some comfort. I conclude by saying that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our court system and that is precisely what we seek to do.

I thank the Minister for his response and for taking the time to respond in detail. On video links, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) suggested, there is serious concern about the context in which police stations are closing. I met one of my borough commanders this morning who said Brixton police station is full and there is no capacity. I am not sure the Government have a plan for that. Southwark and Camberwell councils are rationalising a number of their premises, which is probably why they have difficulties in accommodating the Court Service. It is not clear that facilities for video links will be available.

We have a video link in Wales that operates from a community centre. We can be broad in our thinking process.

My point is about the absence of a detailed plan in the context of a very big decision. The Minister has not responded to my detailed questions about the way in which provision will work at Camberwell and I would be grateful for a written response.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the justice system. At the moment, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity without a plan.

The hon. Lady may want a lifetime opportunity, but I am afraid she has run out of time.

Question put and agreed to.