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Court Closures

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. (904186)

Maintaining access to justice is a key principle when changes to the estate are proposed. Before issuing our consultation on court closures in January, we assessed the impact on access to justice—principally, the changes in travel time for court users. The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, and is made only after full public consultation and where we are satisfied that access to justice is maintained. Our reform programme will improve access to justice for many users, while allowing many needs to be met without the need to attend court. Online solutions and video hearings will make access to justice easier.

The Minister’s experience is not happening in my constituency, where Buxton court closed in 2016. Some of my constituents now have to travel 40 miles on a one-and-a-half-hour trip to Chesterfield court. The police say that it now takes them a whole day to take someone to court, whereas it used to take less than half a day, and that is having an impact on the number of offenders they can bring to court and on justice in my area. Please will the Minister take this into account in the current consultation?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, but we also have to take into account the fact that 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity during the financial year 2016-17, and across the country courts are utilised at 58% of their capacity. In those circumstances, where resources are scarce we have to make decisions about the reforms we undertake.

I have been raising concerns about the closure of Lambeth county court for the past two years, and the court finally closed in December. My constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing. When will the Justice Secretary take action to address this unacceptable situation?

The reality is that we are undertaking a series of reforms, making much greater use of digital technology and increasing access to online ways of dealing with this. This is an important modernisation that the courts system needs.

Very sadly, we have lost our magistrates court in Kettering, which, I have to say to the Government, was a mistake. It means that magistrates, the police and witnesses are all having to travel further. The closure of court sends a poor signal to the magistracy that they are not valued. Can we get rid of this ridiculous age limit, whereby magistrates have to retire at the age of 70?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, on which I have received representations. This is consistent with what happens elsewhere within the judiciary, but I am conscious that it will continue to be a matter of some debate.

The Government are continuing to cut court staff, close courts and sign contracts worth millions of pounds for their digitisation programme. These are huge changes, which will have an impact on our courts for decades. Will the Minister promise not to close any more courts or sign contracts until the courts Bill is published and the matter has been debated fully in this Chamber?

I hope to be able to bring forward further news on the courts Bill in the near future, but I am not going to give the undertaking the hon. Lady seeks. It is important that we continue to look to get the best out of the resources we have. If that means reforms here in making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that our court estate is as rational and efficient as possible, we will need to continue to do that.