It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I sought to secure this Adjournment debate due to my desperate frustration 20 months on from the Government’s decision to close both Halifax county and family court, and Calderdale magistrates court, in October 2016. When the court closures were first proposed in 2015, I joined local magistrates to campaign for a merger of the two courts, which would have delivered a cost saving to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service while maintaining court provision and access to justice locally.
I met the then Minister responsible for courts, Mr Vara—I think that Craig Whittaker did the same—to outline our case. I also wrote a letter to the then Secretary of State for Justice that was co-signed by 18 local law firms, the leader of Calderdale Council, the chief executive officer of WomenCentre and the Halifax Law Society, but to no avail, as the courts closing the following year. I then sought to press the Government for alternatives, having listened carefully to their suggestion that old-fashioned court buildings were actually a barrier to justice, and that their closure would instead facilitate a revolution in access to justice, enabled by the roll-out of a variety of new technologies.
After visiting Kent police’s remote justice scheme to see the good work going on there, I attempted to help to shape the process as a member of the Public Bill Committee that considered the Prisons and Courts Bill in 2017. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lucy Frazer, will be aware that that Bill was dropped following the announcement of the snap general election in June 2017.
I held further discussions with the then Minister responsible, Sir Oliver Heald, and he arranged for me to meet the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, Susan Acland-Hood, in July 2017. She understood my concerns and confirmed that Halifax would get a video link to mitigate the impact of the court closures.
Sadly, a year on, I am aware of no progress. I want to outline my concern that, far from technology allowing for a better system that is driven by victim-centred best practice, and in which justice is more accessible than ever before, the same old-fashioned court system is still in place, but simply with fewer courts that are just further away than ever before.
As it stands, access to justice is undeniably significantly worse in Calderdale since the court closures—I will outline why. West Yorkshire police officers working in the Calderdale district have been clear that, at a time when resources are stretched and demand has to be carefully managed, the increased burden created by officers and staff travelling further to give evidence, to secure warrants and to transport prisoners is placing yet another strain—one that was entirely avoidable—on resources.
I can only imagine that a similar impact has been felt by police forces in other areas across the country where courts have closed. I say I can “only imagine” because, having asked about this issue in a series of written parliamentary questions, it seems that no impact assessment has been carried out at either a national or a local level.
Although I have been informed that the Secretary of State for Justice has not specifically discussed with the Home Secretary the potential additional financial costs for police forces in areas where the local court has recently closed, it was explained to me that police forces could have made submissions to the public consultations prior to the court closures. There has been no impact assessment or even discussion since that point.
The police have also informed me that the reduced footprint of the justice system is having a particular impact on domestic violence prosecutions. A recent domestic violence charge was scheduled to be heard in February 2019, which will fall just short of the victim facing a 12-month wait for the case to be heard.
Further to that, when I asked the Minister in a written question how cases that would previously have been heard in Calderdale are now being distributed between the neighbouring courts, I was told that all cases have been transferred to Bradford. Although the commitment from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service ahead of the court closures was that all work would be transferred to Bradford—10 miles away—and that that court could handle the increased demand, that has not happened from the very start, as cases are being heard in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield. It worries me that the Ministry of Justice is not across this in its response to written parliamentary questions, because the practical implications are massive and integral to the problems we are facing. Leeds magistrates court is 20 miles away from Halifax town centre, a further 10 miles away from Bradford, which was the subject of consultation.
One consequence of the situation is that it proves much harder to organise independent domestic violence advisers to attend court in order to support victims when those advisers are covering two or more courts simultaneously. Leeds and Huddersfield magistrates courts are 20 miles apart. Given the length of time victims now routinely face to have their cases heard, the instances of cases being lost or dropped due to victims withdrawing support is increasing. Surely we cannot allow this to happen. I asked the Government about the average and longest waiting times for domestic violence cases to be heard, but was informed that the information requested could be obtained only at disproportionate cost and was therefore not available. Surely the Government need to understand what the impact is. If domestic violence cases are taking a year to be heard, the Government must step in to address the situation and take corrective action, but they first needs to know where that is happening, the length of the delays and why they are occurring.
I received the same response when I asked how many cases had been abandoned or dropped in areas where courts had recently closed. I did so because there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the failure of both vulnerable victims and defendants to appear in courts that are now much further away has resulted in an incredibly disrupted and inefficient system. I understand that for so-called “cracked trials”—those that close unexpectedly—forms have to be completed to specify the reason why. Solicitors and local police tell me that the reason is increasingly because prosecution witnesses and victims fail to turn up in court, which is due in no small part to the distances they have to travel and the periods of time they have to wait before their cases are heard. As the Government are in possession of those forms setting out the reasons why those cases are cracked, may I urge them please to undertake analysis and publish that information, because if we do not get a grip on this, we let victims down and let perpetrators off the hook.
My local officers also make the point that between March 2016 and March 2018 in Calderdale, there has been a 64% increase in the number of arrest warrants issued under the Bail Act 1976 for failure to appear in court—a 64% increase! The cost of that to the police and its impact on resources reflect a damning failure of our justice system to deliver on its own responsibilities, rather than simply passing the work and cost on to other agencies.
Let me turn to the impact on the local authority. Calderdale Council confirms that family cases are being heard across the neighbouring area, with families travelling to Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds for care proceedings. All emergency orders are heard in court in Leeds, about 20 miles away from Halifax town centre. Families are having to travel much further, as are lawyers, and, significantly for the council, so too are social workers. What was previously an hour or two out of the office for a hearing is now routinely half a day. Like the police, social workers were stretched without this entirely avoidable pull on their time, and the situation has an impact on capacity within the team.
An issue that was raised with me only recently by Trinity Academy Sowerby Bridge, and confirmed by Calderdale Council, is the local authority’s inability to secure court dates to take enforcement action against parents who persistently flout attendance requirements. It is depressing that that might be necessary, and there are some uncomfortable patterns around lack of attendance in the cases outlined to me—that is a debate for another day, Mr Deputy Speaker—but having issued penalty notices to parents that have gone unpaid, the local authority has a statutory responsibility to the school to secure a court date for the case to be heard within a six-month window. These cases are all heard in Bradford, and there is a delay in obtaining court dates due to the volume of hearings being sought between the two councils, Calderdale and Bradford. Calderdale Council informs me that that is having a detrimental effect on its statutory service to schools, leading to a situation in which the backlog of cases in the system is such that it has had to write off a significant number of cases of unpaid penalty notices as it simply cannot secure a court date within the required six-month timescale. The fine therefore goes unpaid but, more worryingly, in some of those cases the child is not going to school for that duration, and the school and the council are powerless to take corrective action due to the court closures.
The youth offending team is also having to adapt, with staff now based at Bradford court, where all the youth cases are heard, despite staff having to drive young people to Bradford on occasion to make sure that they attend. I understand that the YOT feels that attending court can help with behavioural change and convey seriousness to a young person who might be on the wrong path, and I am inclined to agree. The court buildings themselves will always play an important role in the infrastructure of justice provision.
I have discussed the situation with local law firms in Halifax and, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, three firms that specialised in criminal law have relocated since the courts closed. That is jobs and business rates gone from our area. Solicitor Mark Baxendale of Baxendale Vanzie solicitors told me that he is currently working on a case involving a Calderdale man that is being heard at Leeds court, confirming once again that cases are being heard as far as 20 miles from Halifax—not in Bradford as promised, or as suggested in the answer to my written parliamentary question.
My local courts were just two of the 86 courts across England and Wales that were closed in 2016, and an additional eight closures were proposed in January this year. Following my meeting with Susan Acland-Hood, Calderdale Council has had meetings with the Courts and Tribunals Service on the delivery of the commitment to video links in one of the council’s buildings. The latest news that Calderdale heard from the Courts and Tribunals Service was in February—four months ago—when it was told that the technology at the court end was not fit for purpose to accommodate court hearings by video link. Attempts were being made to source alternative technology, but Calderdale Council has received no further updates since then.
In May, I asked the Government how many courts had been closed and replaced with remote video technology since 2015. The answer was that none had been closed and replaced with remote video technology since 2015 but, to “enhance” access to justice, remote video links had been established in six areas where courts had closed since 2015, with a further two video links to be in place by the end of the year. So, 86 courts have been closed and video links have been introduced in just six areas affected by those closures since then. I object in the strongest possible terms to the suggestion that this was done to enhance access to justice. Justice gaps have been plugged in just six out of 86 areas; that is not enhancing access to justice, it is decimating it.
I hope that I have left the Minister in no doubt that the provision of justice in Calderdale and the surrounding areas has been dealt a critical blow by the closure of the courts. I would like to see immediate progress on video links, and if the technology is not yet available, court provision should be reinstated until it is. The case load has not been transferred 10 miles to Bradford, as was consulted on, but, in some instances, 20 miles to Leeds. What is being done to address that? It is not what was consulted on and, apparently, it is news to the Ministry of Justice, given its written response. Finally, will the Minister commit to undertaking an analysis of how long it is taking for courts to hear domestic violence trials, and the reasons why so-called cracked trials are collapsing in areas where courts have recently closed? In that way, we will really be able to understand the impact and seek to mitigate it, however and wherever possible.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate. I know that the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) is very interested in this issue and has campaigned hard for her constituents. I am aware of how hard she campaigned against the original closure of the courts in Halifax on the basis of travel times and lack of access to justice. I was aware that, as she said, she met the chief executive officer of the Courts and Tribunals Service in July 2017 to discuss opportunities to establish a video link and, as she identified, she has recently asked a number of written parliamentary questions on this topic.
I note that my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker is present; he, too, campaigned against the closure of the courts in Calderdale. I also see that Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is in the Chair; he is campaigning vigorously against the closure of his local court in Chorley and I have met him several times to hear his concerns and those of his constituents.
Before I turn to the particular instances that affect the hon. Lady’s Halifax constituency, it is important to make a number of broad points about access to justice and the courts estate. In every sector, digitalisation is improving access to services, including to public services. Technology has reformed the way that we live our lives and made many processes more efficient. In such circumstances, we ask ourselves whether justice should be immune from digital advancement.
In 2015, the Civil Justice Council wrote a report, stating that online dispute resolution had enormous potential to bring two great benefits to our justice system: a lower-cost court system and an increase in access to justice. The Ministry of Justice is now in the process of improving and upgrading our justice system to bring it up to date in the 21st century.
Technology is not the only answer to any upgrade. The provision of justice depends on people and courts and on lawyers and judges. However, in circumstances in which 41% of courts in 2016-17 were used at less than half of their available hearing capacity; in circumstances in which the money from the proceeds of the sale of a court are put back into the justice system; in circumstances in which we are spending £1 billion on our courts reform programme; and in circumstances in which finances are not unlimited, we do need to ask ourselves where money on the justice system is best spent. It is in that context that the closure of the courts in Calderdale took place.
The closures of the county and magistrates courts were proposed because they were poorly used. For example, in the financial year before the consultation, the magistrates court had been used for 33% of its available hours. Both the magistrates court and the county court were also grade II listed buildings and not fit for purpose. The court consultation resulted in a proposal to move the work to Bradford, where better facilities were available for those using the courts.
The courts were closed only after the Ministry of Justice had consulted and considered carefully the responses and the Lord Chancellor was satisfied that the courts could be closed without compromising access to justice. The consultation response document stated that the Ministry of Justice would explore the potential for those living in Halifax to give evidence into court remotely from another location in the town. Finding an appropriate IT solution and local venue has taken longer than we had initially hoped, but I am pleased to be able to advise the hon. Lady that arrangements are being put in place to allow witnesses and users, subject to judicial approval, to give evidence via a video link located in the Calderdale council building. The facilities will require some initial testing to make sure that they meet all necessary requirements, but I am told that we will be able to provide this enhancement for those who need to give evidence in court and who are unable to travel to Bradford.
I know that this has taken a long time, and I will identify some of the reasons why that is the case. Initially, it was necessary to find a building. One was identified, but there were problems. The Ministry of Justice then looked at two other buildings: Customer First and the citizens advice bureau. It progressed with Customer First. There was then an issue of incompatible IT, but that issue is now solved. Then it had to bid for funding. It is now working with the judiciary on where the video facility will go in Bradford, but it thinks there will be a solution imminently. Then the IT will have to be installed.
I know that the hon. Lady welcomes video facilities. She mentioned that she was a member of the Prisons and Courts Bill Committee and that she visited Kent police’s video-enabled justice system. I note that she said that she “genuinely welcomed” the move to introduce modern technology into the justice system, so that vulnerable victims can record their evidence just once to save potentially painful and unnecessary repetition; so that we can cut down the time spent by police officers in court; and so that justice can be accessed on an iPad in a front room. She went on to say that such changes would be “fantastic”.
Across the court estate, we have established video link facilities that allow vulnerable victims and witnesses routinely to give evidence without having to be in the same courtroom as the defendant. We have more than 2,000 operational video links, with witness links in magistrates and Crown courts.
On the wider programme of reform, we are making considerable progress. So far, we have delivered high-quality new digital services. For example, the public can now apply for uncontested divorce online; apply for probate online; make pleas online for low- level offences, such as traffic offences or evading their bus fare; and respond to civil money claims. Thousands of people have already used these pilots and received straightforward digital access to the courts for the first time. Public feedback has been extremely positive.
This is not just about efficiency. Offering court and tribunal services online can significantly improve the experience of those using the courts. For example, the rejection rates for paper divorce applications was 40% due to errors and omissions. Since the latest release of the online divorce service, the online application rejection rate is now less than 1%, and surveys show user satisfaction of about 90% for our online services.
The hon. Lady has raised several important and interesting points about the experience in her constituency. She mentioned the particularly important aspect of domestic violence, and I recently held a roundtable with practitioners in the judiciary and those who use the courts to work out how we can improve the court service for those who have experienced domestic violence. She made several points that I am happy to look into.
I am grateful that we have had an opportunity to debate this important topic today. The Government are investing a significant sum to enhance access to justice, and we will work hard to drive forward the transformation of our courts and tribunals to make sure that we continue to have a justice system that we can be proud of.
Question put and agreed to.