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Access to Justice: Court Staffing and Closures

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

16. What assessment he has made of the effect on access to justice of recent (a) changes in court staffing and (b) court closures. (909725)

I would like to assure the hon. Lady that any decision to close a court is not taken lightly, but in circumstances where 41% of our courts operated in 2016-17 at half their available capacity and where we are investing £1 billion in courts and bringing them up to date, the Ministry of Justice has to think carefully about where our court resources are most effectively and efficiently spent.

I thank the Minister for her response. However, the recent closure of courts in West Yorkshire is putting additional pressure on those that remain, causing backlogs and delays. The Hands off HRI campaign, which is fighting to save services at our local hospital, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, is waiting for a consent order that is with Leeds Crown court. However, the backlog of several weeks means that the campaign is undergoing a lengthy period of uncertainty, as are those involved in many other cases. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that cuts to staffing and closures are not damaging my constituents’ access to justice?

As I mentioned, when we undertake court closures—they are undertaken very carefully, and the Lord Chancellor does not undertake these decisions lightly—we look at court utilisation rates, and the courts that are closed are often those that are not performing in terms of capacity. On the case the hon. Lady refers to, I am happy to take it up with her and to look at any backlog or delay.

The Government have been forced to announce a one-year delay to their £1 billion court reform programme. Many people are concerned that this programme is simply a smokescreen for sacking staff and closing courts. Will the Government take this opportunity to have a public debate about the issue and to allow Parliament to debate and scrutinise these changes?

Our court reform programme is one of the most ambitious in the world. We recently held a seminar at which at least 20 other countries were represented. They talked about their reform programmes, and none of them was as ambitious as ours in streamlining, making more effective and modernising the court process. The delay in the programme is to ensure that we can efficiently and effectively manage the programme going forward.