HM Courts and Tribunal Service

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane 11:30 am, 8th September 2015

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the recent reorganisation of HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The infrastructure supporting the administration of the courts and tribunals is in desperate need of reform to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens. The way the service operates is inefficient, disjointed and based on technology that is simply out of date. The reform programme, which is strongly supported by the senior judiciary, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient courts and tribunals service.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

Although I am aware of the proposed integration of Taunton tribunal service with the nearby magistrates court just down the road that will enable greater efficiency to the service, could the Minister kindly broaden the picture by confirming how many courts and tribunals were empty for more than half of their hearing time, which highlights other areas where efficiencies might be made?

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to note the integration of the two sites in her constituency, which are within half a mile of each other. In 2013-14, 170 courts and tribunals—more than a third of the total number—were empty for more than half their available hearing time. The current court estate is clearly inefficient and underused. Our reform programme is an opportunity to create a modern, more user-focused and efficient service that better serves the taxpayer.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Labour, Workington

Workington court in my constituency is one of the courts up for closure. I want to ask the Secretary of State about the impact that that will have on my constituents getting to courts. He recently said that when looking for courts up for closure:

“What we tried to do was to make sure that the time it will take for any citizen to travel to court remains less than an hour.”

Currently, it takes less than half an hour for 83% of my constituents to get to court.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Labour, Workington

I will be very quick.

If the court is closed, 58% will take up to two hours if they have a car, and 43% will take over two hours by public transport. Does the Minister consider that acceptable, and will he look at it again?

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

May I first assure the hon. Lady that this is a consultation and that no decisions have been taken so far? We want to be modern and to move into the 21st century, during which many people will simply not have to travel to courts, whatever the distances. We are moving to using video conferencing facilities, particularly for victims and witnesses. Courts are already doing that with prisoners, so the travel element will diminish.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

It is now a considerable time since the Government closed down Keighley magistrates court in Bingley in my constituency and moved the operation to Bradford. Yet the magistrates court in Bingley is still lying idle, costing the Government money in maintaining it and not doing anything for the local economy in Bingley. Despite my badgering the Minister about this on many occasions, not a great deal seems to have happened. May I urge him to pull his finger out and get on with selling this building and bringing it back into use, which is much needed for the local economy?

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank my hon. Friend for his characteristic contribution to Justice questions. We have spoken about this matter, including with him. I assure him that the small number of courts remaining to be sold includes his, and we are working on it.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Shadow PC Spokesperson (Energy & Natural Resources), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice)

Does the Minister agree that the proposed closure of magistrates courts in rural areas, such as Dolgellau, where it is impossible to reach alternative courts in time by public transport, will in effect shift the cost of justice on to victims and witnesses, who participate in the justice system through no fault of their own?

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I assure the hon. Lady that we have been particularly careful to take account of rural areas, such as those in Wales. I reinforce the point I made earlier that many people will not be required to attend court; that will apply only in some cases. Where people have such difficulties, they can speak to court officials to try to ensure that their cases are listed at a more acceptable time.