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Court Closures

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018

1. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. (904894)

We are looking at ways to improve our justice system and to modernise the delivery of justice in many ways, including with technology. In circumstances where 41% of tribunals were used at half their capacity in 2016-17, it is right that we consider whether spending money on the physical estate is the best use of money.

The Government like to say that they have reallocated court services rather than closed them, but Bedford has lost its magistrates court and employment tribunal court, so the public and lay members must travel more than 30 miles to access justice. Can the Minister reassure me that family court services, which are heard in the highly utilised ‎Shire Hall, will remain in Bedford indefinitely?

The hon. Gentleman is right in relation to the changes taking place in Bedford to a certain extent, but I emphasise that the closure of the tribunal court is nothing to do with any changes being made by the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. The tribunal service is closing because the landlord did not extend the lease, and it was a decision of listing, which is a judicial capacity, to move the tribunal court’s hearings elsewhere. Civil cases will be heard in Bedford magistrates court, and until another location is found, it will not close.

Northallerton magistrates court in my constituency is scheduled for closure. Will the Minister consider using that court as a pilot for some of the future technology solutions, to ensure that those are workable in practice, before the closure is implemented?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, as has his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). I have met them both and the police and crime commissioner for the area. It is important to consider the appropriateness of pilots for mobile technology, and we will do so.

Thousands of key court staff were axed, but the Government are now spending tens of millions of pounds more on contracting agency staff. More than 100 courts were sold off, each raising not much more than the average house price. Now the Secretary of State has appointed someone with a slash-and-burn record as the new chair of the HMCTS board, telling the press that Tim Parker’s

“expertise will be vital as we deliver our reform and modernisation of the courts”.

To allay concerns that Mr Parker has been appointed for his toughness on cuts, can the Minister outline the specific expertise that Mr Parker has in working in our court system?

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of points that I would like to refute, but I will mainly concentrate on two. It is important that where successful people in business put themselves forward for public service, we should welcome them and not put off experienced people from taking up important posts. Mr Parker has been successful in the businesses that he operated and has operated them appropriately, and we welcome him to his post. The hon. Gentleman also talks about cuts to our system. I would like to make it clear that the Ministry of Justice is proposing an extensive reform programme, which will put £1 billion into our courts service.

Benefit applicants in Kettering tell me that they are now having to wait a completely unacceptable 45 weeks for tribunal appeal hearings due to a lack of a suitable location. Will the Minister look into that as a matter of urgency and get that problem fixed?

It is very important that when cases are started, they are heard expediently, so that people are not prejudiced and do not have to wait for justice. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about those issues.