I beg to move,
That this House
has considered court closures and access to justice.
I am pleased to have secured this debate. It concerns a topic of extreme importance, the rule of law and justice in our country. One of the underlying tenets of our legal system is that there should be equality before the law. I shall shortly explain how the piecemeal way in which the Government have implemented the court closures, coupled with the cuts in legal aid, has undermined that principle and left vulnerable people, disabled people and those with low incomes trying to gain access to justice with the scales firmly tipped against them. Our legal system can only deliver justice if everyone can access it fairly and engage with it, but the fact is that those pursuing local justice now find that it is not so local.
My first charge against the Government is that the court closure programme, since 2010, has been disjointed and fragmented, and is not logical. Cambridge magistrates court is a fine modern court, purpose-built in 2010. It is close to the railway and bus stations in central Cambridge, has modern facilities, and is ideally placed to serve the needs of the local community. Last year, it somehow found its way on to a list of eight courts that were due to be closed this year for—allegedly—being underused, dilapidated or close to other services. Of those eight, seven have been or will be closed by the end of the year. The Cambridge court survived only because it was on a long finance lease with restrictions. Had that not been the case, it would surely have closed a mere nine years after it had opened. This bizarre situation demonstrates the inconsistent decision-making of Ministers.
Then there is the chaos and confusion surrounding the closure of Lambeth county court, in a prime location in Cleaver Square in Kennington. In 2015, it was announced that the court would close, despite overwhelming consultation responses opposing the move, and that all housing possession cases would be transferred to Camberwell magistrates court. Then Camberwell was earmarked for closure, and so a new plan was hatched. In early September 2017, Lambeth closed, but some court users were told that it would remain open to deal with some possession cases, while others would be dealt with at Stratford and at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch county court. Then court users were told that the Inner London Crown court would deal with Lambeth’s possession cases. Finally, it was settled that they would be dealt with at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. That just shows how ill prepared Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is to deal with its own court closures.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.
Oldham magistrates court was closed a few years ago. What is so disappointing is that there has been no compensation in the form of reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled people—for example, those with agoraphobia who want to give evidence via a video link. Is that not an absolute travesty? Disabled people already face a host of difficulties, and this is yet another.
That is an excellent point. It typifies the piecemeal way in which the closures have been implemented. The process has not been joined up. I believe that it has been driven by cost-cutting measures rather than an overarching view. I shall say more about that later.
According to the Law Society, there are now no youth courts in the boroughs of Southwark, Lewisham or Greenwich. All the cases from those boroughs now go to Bromley youth court. The four boroughs have a higher total population than the cities of Leeds and Manchester combined, yet they have to make do with one youth court for all their needs.
The closure of 258 courts over the past nine years has been nothing less than shambolic. It is not part of any master plan, but is rather a slavish knee-jerk response to the Treasury’s demands for more cuts from the Ministry of Justice. Worse still, it has taken no account of the impact on disadvantaged people and people on low incomes, who are disproportionately affected by the closures. That brings me to my second point. According to the Magistrates Association, since 2010 more than half the 323 magistrates courts—a total of 162—have closed. In some cases, defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and magistrates are now travelling 50 miles to obtain local justice. I do not believe for one minute that the cost of making all those court users travel such distances has been factored into any court closure programme.
When the closure programmes began in 2010, the initial proposal behind the closures was that 90% of all court users would be able to reach the court within one hour. Since then, the goalposts have moved, and the overwhelming majority of court users are expected to reach the court by public transport between the hours of 7.30 am and 7.30 pm.
The Government have completed no equality assessment of the impact on those with protected characteristics, the disadvantaged and people with low incomes. In its evidence to the Justice Committee in March 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that it had been told by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service that it did not hold comprehensive data on court users on which to assess the impact of court closures, but that instead it compared the local population with the regional population to establish whether certain groups were over-represented. No account has been taken of the cost of travelling by public transport at peak times, or the need for additional childcare costs to accommodate longer journey times.
The only data that has been produced on this issue is from the University of Suffolk, suggesting that another impact of long travel times could be the non-attendance of defendants. In February this year, the Grimsby Telegraph ran a story about the failure of a staggering 79 defendants to attend Grimsby magistrates court in the month of January 2019. One explanation given by the paper was that since the closure of Scunthorpe magistrates court, 27.5 miles away, many of the defendants had been unable to afford the train fare. If they were travelling today before 9 am, it would cost them £15.80 one way—a huge amount for someone on universal credit to pay to go to court. In cases of non-attendance at a hearing, the magistrates must issue a warrant for the defendants’ arrest and they will be brought to court by the police, who will have used valuable time and resources as a result.
Will the defendant give way? [Laughter.] I am so sorry for calling the hon. Gentleman a defendant. He is not a defendant at all; he is an honourable and upstanding Member of the House.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about defendants attending court, and he has made an important point about travel costs. However, we must keep our feet on the ground. If acquitted, the defendant will ordinarily be entitled to the reimbursement of his travel costs. Only guilty defendants will be required to pay. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that, too, is an important point?
I plead not guilty to being a defendant.
While what the hon. Gentleman has said may be the case, the fact remains that those costs are incurred initially by the person making the journey, which causes hardship in the short term.
Is it not also true that people often do not know exactly what the procedures are and are deterred by uncertainty about the costs that they will face?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Many people do not obtain the legal advice that they need to make such informed decisions, and that, too, is part of the problem.
The hon. Gentleman made a wrong career move at some point. [Laughter.] At the risk of attempting to cross-examine him, may I suggest that the answer to that point might be that, while it is perfectly true that the acquitted defendants will be entitled to apply for the return of their costs, there is a broader public interest in bringing the guilty defendants to court so that they can be convicted and justice can thereby be done?
The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent point. He is quite right: that is indeed the case.
Women’s Aid has highlighted that fact that, in rural areas in particular, survivors of domestic abuse must travel long distances to reach family courts. Apart from the question of childcare arrangements and the cost of travel, there is a serious safety concern, as the perpetrators of the abuse may be travelling on the same route at the same time, owing to the infrequency of public transport services in those areas. That has the potential to make an already stressful and harrowing experience even worse. I note that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has confirmed that it is considering whether to pay for taxis to ferry defendants and witnesses from the most remote parts of the country to hearings. This just goes to demonstrate that little or no consideration has been given to the impact of court closures on court users.
As alluded to by my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams, there is a court modernisation programme and most people are broadly supportive of this £1.2 billion programme and making best use of technology to help alleviate the pressures on courts and tribunals, but this is not the panacea for court closures. There are those who will be digitally excluded due to difficulty in reading or writing, but even those who can navigate their way through the technology will still need proper advice.
Many litigants in person do not understand the legalities in their case. This can lead to unintended consequences such as pleading guilty to something they have a defence to, or choosing a path that may lead to them being penalised with costs. The cuts to legal aid funding and the lack of access to legal advice leads to a raw deal for some. They should be getting justice. The Public Accounts Committee said in its report “Transforming courts and tribunals” that
“without sufficient access to legal advice, people could make uninformed and inappropriate decisions about how to plead, and that the roll-out of virtual hearings could introduce bias and lead to unfair outcomes.”
Video hearings are not suitable for all cases because the informality of giving evidence by video could result in adverse inferences being taken about a person’s demeanour, which would not be the case if that evidence was being given face to face.
Some courts are not even ready to deal with court modernisation. Court No. 1 in Taunton only has one plug socket on the lawyers’ bench, making it impossible for all lawyers present to charge their laptops. Wi-fi is also poor or non-existent in some courts.
The reality is that HMCTS has no overarching vision of what it expects courts and tribunals to look like in the future. Unless it provides data to make it possible to make a robust assessment of the equality impacts of current court closures, it should cease closing courts.
My hon. Friend is talking about the impact of court closures on access to justice. If we look in a cumulative way at all the different cuts—for example, to legal aid—as well as what he is describing now, we see that the lack of access to justice that many of our constituents are facing is profound. Does he agree that this is a real indictment and shows the impact of this Government’s policies on the justice system?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She is certainly right about the cumulative effect of cuts to legal aid and court closures making it harder for the most disadvantaged to access justice as they should be able to.
Local justice and fairness and equality before the law need to apply to everyone equally. The court closures programme has fundamentally failed and skewed things against those on low incomes and the disadvantaged. This has to stop and has to stop now: justice must be for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
It is a pleasure to follow Bambos Charalambous, my fellow Justice Committee member, and I congratulate him on securing this debate on a very important topic. I was happy to have been a supporter of his application for the debate, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity.
Access to justice is a fundamental issue. It is not just a transaction issue between the parties to a case; it is fundamental to the running of a civilised society. It ought to be regarded as not just a transactional matter between individuals either, but as something that is the warp and woof of the checks and balances that make our society work. Therefore, the right to have access to justice is a fundamental civic right of every individual and it is important that we aim to produce a system that achieves that without unreasonable obstacles.
Of course, we are obliged to garner public funds with care and make sure they are spent wisely, but it is equally important that the state has an obligation to provide an accessible justice system as part of its duties to protect its citizens. Therefore, we perhaps need to take a step back and look at what we do in relation to courts and other justice issues in the context of that overarching principle.
The issue of court closures has been of real concern to Members in all parts of the House, and for legitimate reasons. I do not say that every court closure is an unreasonable step, and I do not say that every court that was in existence when I started at the bar is viable now. I appeared in some pretty unsatisfactory old magistrates courts and county courts up and down the country, where there was no means of separating witnesses from defendants for example. In some cases there might have been victims of crime present, and the facilities for having a conference with a client in any sort of confidentiality were non-existent. I actually had a conference in a lavatory once in an old magistrates court in East Anglia because there was nowhere else where we could not be heard by either the prosecutor or prosecution witnesses. It was pouring with rain outside so that seemed to be the easiest way to do it—I did not charge any extra, not even a penny. Courts like that should not be in use.
So there are good examples of where it was right to have got rid of old and inappropriate stock, because people who go to court as witnesses and as parties to civil proceedings are entitled to a basic level of service. Therefore, some rationalisation is legitimate and sensible but it must be balanced against the need for proper accessibility and to maintain, particularly in criminal, but also in family and civil, proceedings, a sense of local justice. I will return to that.
The courts rationalisation programme is often seen as part of a broader programme of court modernisation and rationalisation. As I have said, I do not have a problem with the overall thrust of that programme, which was endorsed by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals. It is based upon sound principles. It stems from two significant reports by distinguished judges: Lord Briggs’s report into civil procedure, and the report of Lord Justice Leveson—Sir Brian Leveson—in relation to criminal procedure. May I say in passing that both of those judges have given very great service to our judiciary? Lord Briggs later went to the Supreme Court and Sir Brian Leveson retires tomorrow as president of the Queen’s Bench Division. I pay tribute to the work he did; he has been one of the exceptional criminal jurists and criminal judges and practitioners of our generation, and the country as a whole owes Sir Brian a very great debt for his public service.
So these were well-founded principles and they had good judicial input into their design. The problem is that, as many witnesses have told the Justice Committee in the course of inquiries into the programme and related topics, there is concern that the outworking of that programme places more emphasis than it should on costs and savings rather than on improving services for parties to the hearing and the court user.
The chairman of the Magistrates Association, Mr John Bache, gave evidence to our Committee only a few weeks ago to the effect that, of course, there is always a balance to be struck—we want both fairness and efficiency in a justice system; nobody wants only one or the other. However, he and his members are concerned that in some cases at present the balance tips too far towards efficiency at the cost of fairness, and that cannot be the right way around.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. In the course of this debate we have talked about convenience for defendants and witnesses, but ought we not also to consider convenience for magistrates? Magistrates give of their time to help in the community and perform an invaluable role, but if they have to travel huge distances that will inevitably provide a disincentive. The Government should be very alive to that in making these changes.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and as he will know the Committee, of which he was for a time a distinguished member and for whose work I am very grateful, recently published a report into the magistracy that deals with a number of challenges facing the magistracy. It is convenient that I refer to this point, given that 90-odd% of criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates, who, as he says, are unpaid—they are volunteers; they are the bedrock of the criminal justice system. The point of a magistrates system is that they are lay people—mini juries, in effect—delivering local justice. Defendants are thereby judged by one’s peers, not only in the sense of one’s status in society, but in the sense that they come broadly from the community from which they themselves come.
That has always been fundamental to our system in criminal work. The difficulty has been the number of pressures on the recruitment of magistrates, and one, which was identified to us by the Magistrates Association and other witnesses, is the effect of court closures. Where they become as drastic as they have in some cases, they act as a disincentive to magistrates to continue on the bench, as travel times are much longer than they were. They can also skewer recruitment patterns for new magistrates. A number of studies indicate that the drop-out rate for magistrates in rural areas, where courts often sit only in the county town, is more marked and that there is a tendency in areas where the court has moved to an urban centre for magistrates to be recruited predominantly from the surrounding town areas rather than the rural areas.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The evidence from the Welsh magistrates was particularly marked. They have the additional issue that they often need to recruit magistrates who are bilingual, since the Welsh language is usable in court proceedings. Rural areas of Wales suffer greatly from the dearth of magistrates, we are told, as well as from the difficulty of defendants, witnesses, police officers and lawyers having to travel long distances to get to court. The balance there has to be kept permanently under review.
There are other challenges as well. I know that the Minister will respond in full to a magistrates report, and I hope he will take that on board. One of the things we say is that we should have a holistic approach to the recruitment of magistrates—a workforce strategy—and that must include looking at what is reasonable in terms of the travel times that they are expected to undergo.
Other unintended consequences can stem from that. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred to the closure of four youth courts in London and the amalgamation in Bromley magistrates court, which, as he says, creates difficulties. Even though the geographic distances within London—some of us here are London MPs—might not be great, travel is not necessarily easy, particularly if one is using public transport, and even more so if defendants or other parties to proceedings have chaotic lifestyles. In civil and family cases, they may be people undergoing real stress—because of relationship breakdown, debt problems in civil proceedings, and so on—and the greater the travel burden put on them, the greater the risk that they do not attend and the hearing is ineffective or that those with a legitimate claim in such proceedings are deterred from taking their case forward.
Much progress has been made to make it easier to initiate things such as money claims and divorce proceedings online, which is welcome, but as the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, observed wisely in the other place recently, there is a difference between an online process to deal with transactional matters and online proceedings. As the president of the family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, observed that video or virtual evidence is unlikely to be as appropriate in family cases as in other cases. For example, it can be easier to resolve things such as straightforward claims for damages—money claims—online. It seems important to us that we find that balance and ensure greater nuance and sensitivity in where we reduce our court facilities.
There is also the issue of travel times. The suggestion seems to be that it is reasonable for someone to leave home at 7:30 am to get to a court hearing and then to get home two hours after it finishes, which might be at 5.30 pm. I did a lot of that when I was practising at the Bar, but I understood that, having chosen that job. It is not the same for someone who is a witness in proceedings or who has been summoned to assist the public good by giving evidence about an incident they witnessed. It does not seem reasonable to expect those people to put up with long journey times. Legal aid lawyers are not well remunerated, and their having to travel long hours on modest fees while also preparing their cases properly does not always ensure that justice is fully served.
I hope that we will be cautious in how far we go. It is perfectly fair to point out that the volume of work going through courts—magistrates, Crown and county—has declined and that that fact will obviously be reflected in the court estate to some extent, but I would be happier if I thought that the money being saved was being immediately spent on the upkeep of the retained estate. I regret to say, however, that that is manifestly not the case. The Criminal Bar Association recently posted online a photograph of the wall in the robing room at Southwark Crown Court. As well as various stains and cracks—it is a 1970s building—a number of phone numbers had been written on the wall next to the telephone. The phone numbers were so old they predated the 0207 and 0208 numbers, which shows how long it has been since the place was painted. In Snaresbrook Crown Court, I have seen buckets in the judge’s corridor and so on. We are not recycling the money even to maintain the estate we have. We have to get that right somehow.
The evidence of Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice, was most compelling, and I know that the Minister, who is a diligent Minister and who I welcome to his place in the Ministry of Justice, will want to take that heavily on board. We pride ourselves on having a Rolls Royce system of justice in this country, and in terms of the intellect and integrity of our judiciary, that is absolutely right, but sometimes the buildings in which they operate—
As my hon. Friend says, they are much more like a Škoda.
Having drawn those matters to the House’s attention, as well as my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which I should have done at the beginning, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reflect on the voluminous evidence that our Committee and others have amassed not about how we should abandon the reform program—absolutely not—but about how we can take it forward efficiently and effectively. We must strike that balance. We must achieve efficiency but never at the expense of justice and fairness in what is a fundamental civic right.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous on securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee. The £1 billion pound modernisation programme undertaken by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was designed to move cases online and to increase the use of digital methods to improve the speed and efficiency of our court system. However, as the Public Accounts Committee’s report into transforming courts and tribunals made clear, the pressure to deliver quickly and make savings is limiting HMCTS’s ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and risks it driving forward changes before it fully understands their impact on users and on the justice system more widely, particularly in regard to access to justice.
As a member of the Justice Committee, I am pleased that we are currently undertaking an inquiry into the courts and tribunal reforms. It is clear that the implications are going to be significant. As we have seen in countless other examples from welfare to healthcare, the digitisation and modernisation of Government systems invariably leads to delays and operational issues. Sufficient time is never committed for proper testing and evaluation to ensure that the technology and methods implemented are actually fit for purpose.
On current predictions, HMCTS expects 2.4 million cases a year to be dealt with outside physical courtrooms by 2023, leading it to employ 5,000 fewer staff. While many organisations, including the Law Society and the Magistrates Association have welcomed the increased use of technology, they continue to express concern that the Government’s desire to increase efficiency is coming at the cost of accessibility. I have concerns that by switching to a “digital by default” approach, we are in danger of excluding many people from being able to fully interact with the justice system, given that vulnerable people such as those with learning difficulties, mental health conditions, addictions, disabilities and English as a second language are often disproportionately represented among court users. By assuming that everyone is able to adjust to digital-only platforms, we risk denying people the ability to seek and access justice. The Government’s desire to save money by moving to digital solutions while failing to recognise the impact of their introduction may cost more in the long run, not just financially but by reducing access to justice for many.
While the Government have accelerated the roll-out of digital portals, they have also presided over the dismantling of our court system. Between 2010 and 2019, we have seen 295 court facilities close their doors for good, including more than 50% of the magistrates courts in England and Wales. The combination of this and increased digital-only processes is another example of trying to do too much too quickly, and the results will always have negative consequences on access to justice.
Resolution, the family law group, recently ran a survey of its members following the roll-out of some of the reforms. On access to justice, 87% strongly disagree or disagree that a more accessible service is being delivered, and 94% disagree or strongly disagree that faster processing times are being delivered. Not only is access to justice being denied but the reform agenda is making an already difficult process harder still. Many cases that end up going through the court system will involve vulnerable people in difficult circumstances, such as cases involving children going into care. By limiting the processes by which people interact with the court system, along with the continued closure of the estate, we are setting up barriers that will in turn prevent full access to justice, and particularly the ability of many to access their nearest court.
Following the Lord Chancellor’s recent response to the “Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate” consultation, I share the concerns of groups such as the Law Society that have drawn specific attention to the accessibility of our future court system. I am disappointed that the response categorised a reasonable journey as one that allowed court attendees to leave home no earlier than 7.30 am to attend a hearing and return home by 7.30 pm the same day, using public transport where necessary. For those who have caring responsibilities, family or childcare arrangements and for disabled people and the elderly, a 12-hour window is far from accessible. Some may have access to a car, but those who rely on public transport could have numerous legs to their journey and, given that thousands of bus routes have faced being cut under this Government, it is inevitable that there will be a detrimental impact on the ability of many to get to court in a reasonable time. This could affect their ability to access justice.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that there is another issue that can arise as a result of court closures? She and I know that the four youth courts that have been amalgamated now sit at Bromley, and that many of the youngsters who appear in front of those courts are involved in gang culture. This creates real listing difficulties for the court staff, who have to try to ensure that they do not list cases involving rival gangs from different areas of that part of south London at the same time, given the potential for disorder that can genuinely occur. This is a matter of concern for the police in our shared borough.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I, too, know the difficulties that this is creating for the police and the court service locally. These complex considerations have to be taken into account, but they are sometimes not thought about when introducing these sorts of reforms.
The current outline for a reasonable journey assumes that everything in court that day runs to time and to plan. Court listings are usually oversubscribed under the current set-up, so many people often make their way to court, which often takes several hours, in anticipation of a hearing that never takes place. Not only does that have negative consequences for victims, witnesses and defendants and inevitably cost more, given that solicitors’ fees must still be paid, but it is quite possible that the combination of more difficult journeys and the continued floating or warned-list system will lead to the unintended consequence of people just not turning up at all. Research has shown that those effects, combined with court closures, has led to an increase in no-shows and an increase in warrants of arrest for defendants in locations where magistrates courts have closed.
That is a good point. The reforms are being pushed through without a proper look at what they mean in practice.
A survey of Resolution members by the Family Law Group showed that nearly 50% of respondents said that the courts that they had historically used had been closed and that, as a result, many clients’ travel time to court had increased to two hours each way. There were also over 200 examples of clients suffering financially or emotionally as the result of a court closure or a failure in court administration.
I am also concerned that court closures are leading to a wider reduction in facilities and services available to those who interact with the justice system. Previously, people in court could attend a counter for assistance or advice, particularly when having to fill out the relevant paperwork for their hearings. Resolution’s evidence went on to detail the struggle that many of their clients experience due to the need to phone ahead to arrange things that were previously done in court at a counter. The evidence described clients calling a centre only to find that up to 100 people were ahead of them in the queue and finding that support staff, while not unhelpful, had only limited information, making it difficult to progress any queries. In addition, the fact that individuals now have to book an appointment before being able to attend the court counter creates another barrier to getting stuff done, both for professionals and for members of the public. As I stated earlier, given that vulnerable people are disproportionately represented among court users, reducing the availability of services and switching them to online or telephone-based solutions instead risks excluding many from full interaction with our justice system.
The overarching message from stakeholders is that, while reform can improve the workings of the court system, the pace at which courts have closed, combined with the inaccessible roll-out of the digitalisation reforms, has left behind a gulf in access to justice. Cuts to staffing will see those who have to use our courts system find the whole process even more difficult to navigate. The courts and staff who are left have to deal with increasing caseloads. The Government’s reforms have a facade of ease of use and straightforwardness, but the cuts that have hit the courts have left us with a system in disarray.
In evidence to the Justice Committee, the Criminal Bar Association succinctly stated that
“many of the reforms already implemented and those proposed are framed too much around efficiency at the expense of ensuring a fair process for all.”
I urge the Minister to look at the speed at which the reforms are rolled out and to consider the evidence that too much is happening too quickly. He should also listen to the recommendations of the Public and Commercial Services Union and many other bodies involved in our courts and justice system and prevent any further court closures until it can be proven that they are not having a detrimental impact on access to justice.
It is a pleasure to follow Ellie Reeves and all my learned friends from the Justice Committee. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and Bambos Charalambous, whose application I was proud to sponsor. The Committee has been looking at this area for some time, and the poor Minister is being inundated with the statistics and evidence that we have gathered during the course of our inquiries over the past few years.
My hon. Friend Robert Neill gave an important speech about access to justice, and Opposition Members also made important contributions, so I make no apology for going from the sublime to the very local. I am going to talk about Banbury and Bicester, because we are an interesting example of what happens when courts close.
In July 2015—remember those days?—I was a new MP and the world was rosy. Soon after I was elected, and not entirely to my distaste, it was proposed that Bicester magistrates court would be closed. At the time, along with Banbury and Oxford, it was one of three magistrates courts in Oxfordshire.
I was not too distressed about the news, even as a new, keen MP, because I was told that Bicester magistrates court was operating at 11% capacity. On both sides of the House, we can probably all agree that 11% capacity is not ideal for a court to operate at; it was employing people and taking up a large building on a prime site. I did not resist the proposal, but I made strong representations on the need for Banbury magistrates court to remain open and for the Department to keep an open mind about mobile justice and the real effect on access to justice. I am trying to show that I am not anti-court closure per se, but that what matters is that people can access justice.
The closure went ahead, and the building has since been transferred to Homes England for development. Work has not yet started on the building, which irritates me every time I drive home. At the time, my general support for the proposed closure of Bicester magistrates, as the Department knows well because I told it very clearly, was predicated on Banbury still being open and having the capacity to absorb a possible surge in demand.
I also suggested, to the delight of the Daily Mail, that alternative venues for justice, such as pubs and town halls, be explored as part of a wider discussion about the future of the courts estate. As a Government lawyer for 17 years, I have experience of organising secret hearings in unusual locations, and I am convinced that justice is not about place but about what is done in that place. I am happy to continue making that case both to the new Minister and to the House.
North Oxfordshire is an area facing unprecedented growth, with approximately three houses being finished each day. Cherwell District Council is leading the way and, as the Minister knows only too well, the route for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, which has yet to be announced, will almost certainly come very close to us. The local population is therefore projected to grow by 25% in the coming years.
We hope that all those people will be law-abiding and will never need recourse to either a criminal court or a family court, but the reality is that some of them will. In our daily lives, many of us do not come across the type of person who uses the courts—although, as MPs, we often do. I am talking about those who are really difficult to reach.
The Minister has done a great deal of work on hidden disabilities and authored the fantastic Maynard review. He fully understands this matter, but I implore him, when thinking about court users in the round, to really think about the type of people we are trying to get to court buildings early in the day. They often have hidden disabilities, they are often not very literate and they have difficulties with ready cash to pay for train fares and bus fares. They are genuinely one of the hardest sections of society to reach, let alone to get to a court building by 9 o’clock in the morning.
The closure of Banbury magistrates court has to be viewed against the backdrop of a febrile local atmosphere caused by the removal of some services, notably obstetrics at the local Horton General Hospital. There is considerable local disquiet about services being taken from Banbury to Oxford, with our area being used merely as a dormitory. I noticed—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge also mentioned this—that, snuck into the recent “Fit for the Future” consultation document, is a measure that has moved the goalposts; it is suggested that any time between 7.30 am to 7.30 pm is acceptable for travelling to court.
For the consultation that we filled in on the closure of Banbury magistrates court—one that provoked many responses, none of which were taken any notice of as far as I am aware—the document stated that a journey from Banbury to Oxford takes approximately an hour and 10 minutes by car. I would suggest that that is a very optimistic estimate. I conducted my own travel survey in January 2017, as a result of worries locally about closing local health services. It was clear from the 450 responses I received to my survey that the average journey time to Oxford from Banbury or the surrounding villages is approximately 90 minutes.
It is not clear from the consultation document we received at the time we were consulted about the Banbury court whether consideration was given to the lack of parking facilities at the receiving site in Oxford. Court users will have to allow enormous amounts of additional time to find a parking space. Once that is taken into account, it is possible that a one-way journey from Banbury to Oxford could easily take more than two hours. If I were travelling to court in Oxford, as I did from time to time in my working life before I entered this place, I would allow two hours at least.
The other thing we have to remember is that the vulnerable group of users I mentioned do not necessarily have access to cars. As the consultation document suggests, Banbury is also served by a regular train to Oxford. Although the train provides a realistic alternative mode of transport—for those who live in Banbury itself—the 36-minute journey time suggested in the consultation does not take into account travel times to Banbury station. We have extremely limited bus services locally, and many villages are not served by public transport at all.
I am also concerned about whether real evidence was collected on the absorbing court to determine whether it could cope with the extra work. The Justice Committee had some disturbing evidence given to us last week, unprompted by me, about the shortage of judges in Oxford and therefore the inability of the court to absorb this extra work. We know that in 2016-17 Banbury magistrates sat for a total of 2,211 hours, which we think works out at about 58% usage, with 2,009 hours being spent on criminal work and 202 hours being spent on family work. During the same period, Oxford magistrates had 1,184 spare sitting hours. Even my maths can tell me that there is a shortfall in capacity of about 1,000 sitting hours, and that does not take into account any increase in crime locally which we may get because of the vast increase in the local population.
I was brushed off by representatives of the Department, who suggested that the court could absorb the gap by regular Saturday sessions or sittings beyond the usual five-hour day. I gently remind the Department, which is extremely keen to increase diversity in the professions, that sitting at irregular times does not go with increasing diversity. I hope that the Ministry of Justice will undertake specific engagement with the relevant magistrates associations to ensure all options are fully scoped before decisions are taken in the future.
I am keen, as I have said many times in this House and almost weekly before the Justice Committee, on exploring alternative venues for justice. I am therefore very pleased to welcome the new Minister to his place, because I believe he shares my desire to do this. I met the previous Minister along with two of my favourite local magistrates, who came to help me make our case for piloting alternative venues locally. Given the limited capacity at the receiving site in Oxford, and the risk of over-centralisation and the effect that has on my vulnerable constituents, we have suggested that real consideration be given to using Bodicote House, which is the home of Cherwell District Council, as an alternative venue for justice. The Department has done some scoping work on the suggestion, and I would really like to press forward by having Banbury be one of the pilot sites for this new idea. Every time I mention the idea to certain officials, I am met with the response, “Security is a problem,” but it is a problem that we will be able to overcome if we work together in a constructive fashion.
In welcoming the new Minister to this debate and to his new position, I politely encourage him to help me in my mission to bring justice to local people, and to join me by agreeing that justice is not a place but a precious concept—but only if people can access it.
I declare my interests as a non-practising barrister and the fifth member of the Justice Committee to speak in the debate, albeit the most junior and recently elevated to that position.
I am sure it is a coincidence, but like me other Members will have found in their inboxes this morning a press release from the Ministry of Justice telling them that £15 million of extra Government funding will be spent to improve more than 200 courts. I am sure the fact that that came out on the morning of this debate is just happenstance. When I read it in more detail and found that revolutionary things are being done such as a new roof on Chester Crown court, a new lift at Swansea civil justice centre and plumbing upgrades in Newton Abbot, I wondered whether it was really something that needs to feature in the popular press at the moment. Is it really so revolutionary that these things are happening? It is £15 million for what is actually basic maintenance.
Perhaps I can contrast all that with the £43 million that the Department made from the sale of Hammersmith magistrates court last year—that is three times the entire budget that the Department has committed to the repairs. If the tales of toilets and buckets from the Chair of the Justice Committee are to be believed, it may be that even that £15 million will be inadequate to the task. The sad thing is that at the time Hammersmith court was closed, it was a fully functioning, well-used, fully accessible building in a convenient location. It had the first ever domestic violence court in the country. Sadly, as nothing has yet happened to it, it is now used only for the filming of crime dramas. The most recent time I was there, I was down in a cell with an entire film crew.
I do not want to share private grief, but I shall briefly outline our experience in west London, because it is emblematic of what is happening across the board. The modern court in Hammersmith was built around 20 years ago, and our old, lovely but ageing Victorian magistrates court later moved into it, followed later by our lovely but ageing Edwardian county court. So be it. Over the past 10 years, the county court work was moved over to Wandsworth to allow work from other closed magistrates courts in London to move into the building. We were then told that all the magistrates court work would go to places as convenient to my constituents as Hendon. Then, last year, we were told that Wandsworth county court was to close and that the county court work would go across London to Clerkenwell. It is difficult to keep up with this: there have been four changes in respect of county court work over a period of around 10 years.
The farce then turns to tragedy. This information has been given to me by court users, and not just users of our own courts. My hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous referred to what is happening at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch county court. I am told that files are being lost there, hearings have not taken place more than a year after work was transferred, telephones are not answered, paperwork has been lost, and bailiffs warrants are being executed despite warrants being suspended. My source says:
“The court is essentially in chaos”,
with 70% of staff being agency workers. This is the court, right on the other side of London, that my constituents are being directed to.
Possession work now forms a substantial part of county courts’ work, because without early legal advice people can often end up homeless when they should have received it at an earlier stage. Most cases relate to benefit problems and defects in the benefits system and therefore involve very poor people. Lots of people now walk to court. My excellent law centre, under director Sue James, co-locates its advice services with food banks and will now have to travel across London to provide those emergency services. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, particularly as nearby Brentford county court has five courtrooms, only two of which are used because only two judges sit there. That in turn makes me suspicious about the utilisation figures that we are given.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. He will have heard, as I have, the concerning reports on a number of occasions from the Criminal Bar Association about under-utilisation sometimes being caused by courtrooms left sitting empty while recorders—part-time judges who classically could be used to fill out the slack—are not offered enough slots in which to sit by the Ministry of Justice. It seems a completely false economy.
That is absolutely right. It is the combination of cuts in service that is causing the problems, and one problem is being referenced to another. Under-utilisation is a problem of not having judges to sit in court rather than a problem of not having the cases to refer to that court, as in the example that I have given. That makes me suspicious about the longer hours—the 7.30 to 7.30 window and the flexibility, with warned lists, that means that advocates and clients could be there all day. If there are not enough judges to sit in the courts in the first place, what is the point of courts sitting from early in the morning until late at night? To put it mildly, this has not been very well thought through.
To turn from the particular to the general, it has been mentioned that half the magistrates courts in the country have closed since 2010. One of the first things I did when I was appointed shadow Justice Minister back in 2010 was to respond to that first statement. Little did I know where we were going—that there would be perhaps one cull a year of courts across the country from then onwards. There must come a point when matters have gone too far. One reason for the wholesale, untrammelled closure of courts was obviously austerity. We are not just talking about capital receipts for closed buildings; we are also talking about thousands of staff going—I think another 5,000 staff are due to go over the next two years.
There is no denying that, but the justification given was the now more than £1 billion digitisation programme that was being introduced. The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges says that half the money has been spent but only a limited benefit has yet been seen or realised. We have seen the sale and closure of courts and the restriction of access to justice before any of the benefits. We are taking a leap in the dark and being asked to trust that the Government have got it right. Frankly, judging by most Governments’ IT programmes and success, I always think we ought to be very sceptical about whether they have got it right. The only consistent thing is the amount spent on management consultants—I see that about £61 million has been spent on them as part of this programme. None of this bodes well.
Some people will say that we can get too attached to our local courts, but local justice is important. It is a cumulative process. The cuts to legal aid, the introduction of fees and the closure of courts are having a detrimental effect on people’s rights to access justice, and to do so speedily, conveniently and fairly. It therefore seems entirely reasonable to ask, as the Labour party does, for a moratorium on closures. It is also reasonable to ask for more evidence of the justifications for any closures and of the benefits that are allegedly going to be gained from the money released by those closures. There is a new Minister in post, who I am sure is looking at the issue with a fresh pair of eyes. I hope we are going to hear very shortly that he will look at these matters again and perhaps come to some different conclusions from those of his predecessors.
I am keenly aware that I am probably the only person here who is not a member of the illustrious group of MPs on the Justice Committee. I hope that colleagues will forgive me for the fact that I am going to talk not about the intricacies of court closures, but more generally about access to justice. I am here today to share stories about justice and about what being unable to access to justice looks like. As we have already heard, these stories are all too common and an example of the Government’s refusal to accept that cuts have gone too far and that we need to change direction. Our justice system is in crisis and the time has come for the Government to roll up their sleeves and do something about it.
The city of Bath has been lucky. Despite murmurs a few years ago that Bath county court might close, it remains open and is a location for people across our city to seek justice and settle disputes. However, access to justice is about far more than just a courtroom; I listened carefully to Victoria Prentis saying that we could actually be quite creative about where justice takes place.
My constituency of Bath has been rated by the Law Society as a legal aid desert. In all of Bath and North East Somerset, there is only one law firm that is authorised to provide legal aid advice on housing, including on cases of unlawful eviction, where families are faced with homelessness. This is not unusual. More than half of all local authority areas in England and Wales do not have a single housing legal aid provider. Legal aid deserts have emerged across the country in key areas of law such as immigration and mental health because normal firms can no longer afford to offer these services at a reduced price. Constituents come to my office all the time concerned about financial or civil court cases where they cannot afford representation and hope that my caseworkers can help. We do what we can, but all too often these situations are desperate, and without legal training, there is a limit to what my team and I can do.
Our justice system punishes individuals who try to represent themselves. This is very unfair in a context where ways to access legal aid are few and far between. A 19-year-old girl from Bath recently represented herself in a right to remain case that determined her right to stay in the UK. She had been brought to the UK as a child and did not know, until she tried to apply to university, that she had far outstayed the requirements of the visitor visa that she was brought here on. Not having the money to pay for representation, she represented herself and ended up giving the wrong information to the immigration authorities. As a result, she was put at risk of deportation back to a country where she did not know anyone and did not speak the language. She was lucky that we were able to build a local campaign and crowdfund money to pay for her to get a lawyer, who eventually won back her right to live in this country on human rights grounds, but our system must not rely on luck to determine who can and cannot pursue justice.
Many more constituents have come to me with stories that cannot be resolved because they simply are not able to prepare for the justice they deserve. The context varies—from abusive partners who have ignored court orders and continued the abuse, to a financial settlement from a divorce that has not been honoured, leaving a pensioner in financial crisis. The common thread between the stories is the hardship that my constituents endure after being unable to access justice.
The Government must restore early legal aid advice in cases of welfare, debt, employment, immigration, housing and family law. Although these are considered aspects of civil law, the impact on individuals in these areas cannot be overstated. Family, employment, welfare and the right to stay in one’s country are basic building blocks for a settled life. When access to justice suffers, so does our society. Issues such as discrimination in the workplace go unchecked and can further perpetuate a culture of discrimination and bullying for years to come. Currently, in accusations of work-based discrimination, only one in 200 cases receive funding for representation in court. Exceptional case funding, which was supposed to fund cases involving serious human rights violations, has proven to be very ineffective. There have been 10 applications in the past year concerning work-based discrimination, and all have been rejected. This emergency funding should be reformed as soon as possible in a way that makes it accessible and useful to those who need it.
Without access, our justice system loses its authority, becoming a luxury only afforded to the wealthiest members of our communities. It is no longer simply a case of reducing the cuts; instead, we must seriously reinvest in a fair and effective justice system that is accessible to everyone.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and Robert Neill—the Chair of the Justice Committee—for securing this debate. It is a pleasure to hear from so many members of the Justice Committee, as a former member myself.
This ought to be one of the many debates that we are having in this House about an unprecedented shift in how justice is delivered in this country. The scale of the change is enormous, with hundreds of courts closed and thousands of staff lost, millions fewer cases heard in the courts over the coming years, a £1 billion-plus reform programme and plans for annual savings of £200 million. That is a tremendous change.
Whether for good or for bad, it is undemocratic and deeply concerning that these changes are not properly debated in this Chamber in Government time before being implemented. However, in the spirit of cross-Bench co-operation that Backbench Business debates encourage, I want to acknowledge that the former Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss—someone also from Leeds originally but with whom I have strong political disagreements, it will not surprise people to know—did present a prisons and courts Bill before the last general election, with proposals in black and white to be discussed and amended had it not fallen with that general election.
By contrast, another former Justice Secretary, now the Transport Secretary, rushed through a major justice shake-up in probation that was forced through ignoring the words of the experts, with vast cost to the public and to public safety. I warn the current Justice Secretary that emulating the Transport Secretary’s approach to major justice reforms will come back to haunt him. This risks being his own probation crisis.
Of course, no Labour Member is against technology. Undoubtedly, technology can, with genuine investment and backed by rigorous evidence, aid access to justice. Likewise, no one doubts that our courts need modernisation —that needs to happen—but Labour is concerned that the court closures are a smokescreen for austerity and will cause long-term damage to access to justice. The Public Accounts Committee says that
“the planned changes to the courts and tribunal system are on a scale never before attempted anywhere in the world.”
As one former judge recently asked, why have court buildings been sold before the changes that are part of the reform programme had been put in place, tested, evaluated and shown to work? Why is there not a substantial pilot? Why has sufficient research not been done into the impacts of digital courts? Why has there not been proper public or parliamentary scrutiny?
Labour is calling for a moratorium on further cuts and closures until these reforms can be subjected to full parliamentary and public scrutiny. It is a demand that we share with the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges. While stating that it
“could not be more supportive of modernisation”,
the ADJ has called for
“a pause in the court closure programme until a proper stock take of the present position has been carried out”.
That seems eminently sensible.
We are looking at the impact on access to justice of court closures, but as many Members have said, courts cannot be seen in isolation, especially when the Ministry of Justice has faced the deepest cuts of any Department—cuts totalling 40%. Those cuts are driving a justice crisis. Cuts to police and Crown Prosecution Service budgets compound the problem, and with fewer people charged, fewer prosecutions and fewer people pursuing cases due to a lack of legal aid, justice is denied time and again. It is simply not credible to suggest that investment in technology is the answer to this crisis in access to justice.
Such austerity is the context in which half of all magistrates courts have been closed and a third of county courts have been shut. Selling off local courts piles yet more pressure on the remaining courts and risks hearings being further delayed and rescheduled. That can have a distressing impact on victims and witnesses and creates a justice system that is less accessible for local people, forcing them to travel vast distances, as we have heard today.
The Law Society notes how Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service’s definition of a day’s travel to court impacts on those with caring responsibilities, the elderly and disabled people. My hon. Friend Ruth George has told me about the devastating impact of the closure of Buxton court on her constituents facing eviction. Now facing a journey to Derby without any direct train, many of her constituents are simply unable to defend themselves. My hon. Friend Holly Lynch contacted me in advance of the debate to tell me how the closure of Halifax family court left victims of domestic violence facing a 12-month wait for their day in court.
The first commissioned academic study into the impact of the court closures, by the University of Suffolk, found that costs for some defendants, witnesses and advocates to attend magistrates court had doubled. New research by Dr Daniel Newman and Dr Roxanna Dehaghani found that the high cost of transport in Wales can be prohibitive. For those who think that that is far-fetched, here is an example from the Law Society: a young person in the Greater Manchester area would have to spend almost all their universal credit daily allowance of £8.30 on a £7 tram fare from Bury to central Manchester.
While the Government flog off the family silver by selling off our courts, they are also hollowing out the service, with deep cuts to staff since 2013. Thousands more staff are set to be cut from the Courts and Tribunals Service by 2023. The number of magistrates has fallen by a third since 2012, and the number of judges by almost a fifth. At the same time, the overall case load of HMCTS is not down, but up. It is worth highlighting that around two thirds of the savings so far have come from not replacing staff who have left. Who pays the price? Victims, witnesses and innocent defendants all face a much more difficult court experience.
As judges themselves warned, there has been a
“haemorrhaging of experienced staff, a serious decline in staff and judicial morale, delays in all aspects of process and court systems that are even more broken.”
HMCTS’s staff survey found that 81% of staff say that cuts are interfering with their ability to give legal advice and ensure a fair hearing. It is so symbolic of the ideological “cut first, plan later” approach of this Government that their own figures show an increase in reliance on agency staff in our courts. I recently exposed how tens of thousands of years of vital prison officer experience have been lost due to Government cuts, which has contributed to the epidemic of violence in our prisons. I fear that the court staff cuts will be a similar ticking time bomb.
We are now told that every penny is being redirected into courts reforms, but courts were initially closed as part of the Government’s austerity programme. Only the more recent court closures have been justified by investment in the courts reform programme, and most of those cannot be justified even on that basis. Labour’s analysis of the sale of 126 court premises in England and Wales between 2010 and 2018 showed that 80% went for little more than the average UK house price, with some disposed of for as little as £1. Of course, tens of millions of pounds is being given to consultants to carry out the courts reforms. PricewaterhouseCoopers has done especially well, according to the Government’s own figures, having received over £30 million of public money so far. Let us be clear: not every penny is being reinvested in our justice system.
To conclude, in its damning report on the courts reform programme last year, the Public Accounts Committee said:
“Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.”
I, Labour and so many others share those concerns. Our fear that this is being rushed through regardless of the consequences is a fear shared across the justice sector. It is not a concern with technology; it is a concern that technology is being used as a smokescreen for cuts—an attempt to disguise austerity. It is time for a moratorium on further closures and further cuts until the impact has been properly assessed. Surely, if the Minister is confident about these reforms, he has nothing whatsoever to fear from such scrutiny.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, or should I call it a Justice Committee reunion? I feel rather inadequate in never having been part of this fantastic Committee, with such wonderful people. However, this debate also brings together at least three people in the Chamber who have seen their courts close in the last round of cuts: my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis; you, Mr Deputy Speaker, have seen Chorley go; and me. I have seen Fleetwood close, which was just outside my boundary but served many of my constituents, so I have seen this issue from both sides of the fence.
The ability to access justice is a fundamental right in our society. That is why the Government are investing £1 billion in the most ambitious programme of its kind in the world. It will create a system that works better for those who need it. It will be easier to run and it will provide better value for taxpayers. Access to justice matters because everyone should have a stake in our legal system. None of our plans replaces the need for traditional courts or for people to travel to those buildings. It will not exclude people who do not have access to a computer or the internet. However, it will transform the way people use our courts and tribunals, opening up new ways to access justice.
To undertake a radical modernisation of the operation of our courts and tribunals with the same estate that was in place in the era of carbon paper, manual typewriters and fax machines—yes, there are still some fax machines left in our court estate—would be wasteful and dilute the benefits of reform. As we modernise, it would be inappropriate to define access to justice merely in terms of proximity to our nearest court building.
However, no one should deny the challenges we have in our court estate. Many of our buildings have been underused. In the financial year ending in 2017, 41% of courts and tribunals were used for less than half their available time. Keeping these buildings open costs us money that we could spend on making justice more accessible in other ways. As it stands, the court and tribunal estate is a patchwork that has developed over time and a legacy from many predecessor organisations. This has meant a concentration of buildings in some locations. Of the 337 operational court and tribunal buildings, 245 are within five miles of another court or tribunal, so this should be kept under review. We should test whether buildings are really needed or suitable for the uses to which we put them.
The closure of a court is not a decision taken lightly, and we consult widely and think carefully about the responses we receive before making a final decision. We have changed our minds following a consultation, and retained courts because of the responses received—Northallerton magistrates’ court being one example. Only when convinced that effective access to justice can be maintained has the Lord Chancellor agreed to the closure of a court. In some cases, we have moderated the impact of a closure by continuing to provide local access through a supplementary provision, such as a video link, or by holding hearings in a different public building.
I take great interest in the potential that so-called “supplementary provision” can offer, although I have a certain nervousness about pubs. I know that inquests were once held in pubs, and witnesses gathered in them back in the Victorian era. I am not sure, however, that current concern for the dignity and gravitas of the court can be met by our local Wetherspoons, but I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury proposes for her home town.
I do not accept the characterisation of this programme as being just about cutting costs without any regard for those who use our courts, and neither do I recognise the stories of inconsistency and chaos set out by Bambos Charalambous. At the start of last year we engaged widely on our future strategy, and many Members have referred to the document, “Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate”, which underpins much of our decision making. I urge a further reading of paragraph 2.5, which lists the issues that must be considered. Those include the length of a journey, and the timeframe of between 7.30 am and 7.30 pm.
“the difficulty of the journey, including frequency of public transport and the number of changes required;
the cost of potential journeys;
the type of cases heard at the court or tribunal;
the opening hours of the court or tribunal;
the needs of vulnerable users;
and whether there are available mitigations to reduce the impact on users with longer journey times, if the numbers of such users are small.”
We also consider supplementary provision where that is appropriate to the nature of the case, the court’s workload, and the agreement of the judiciary. Our assessment therefore goes much deeper than whether to tick off two particular times of the day.
I heard about the study that has taken place in Suffolk, and I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend Jo Churchill, who has been particularly affected by that issue. We have set out a clearer definition of what we consider to be a reasonable journey, but in my view the issue has not affected the failure-to-attend rate. Indeed, since about 2013, studies show the numbers of those affected by this issue to be in the low to mid 90,000s, which has declined since 2010. We wish to take into account a range of factors. Compared with December 2010, the proportion of the population now within the stated distance for reaching a magistrates’ court has declined by just 1.6%, so people are not being affected to the extent that many are concerned about.
I urge anyone with an interest in the future of our courts and tribunals to read our response to the consultation, and our new “Court and Tribunal Design guide”, which I fear has not received the same level of attention, despite being just as interesting. It sets out how we will make our courtrooms more flexible, enhance security standards, and provide for the needs of vulnerable victims and witnesses. Those things are just as important for access to justice as the other issues raised today.
As a former Minister for transport accessibility, who is also sitting next to the current Minister responsible for that, I am all too aware of the importance of inclusive public transport. I tried to introduce the idea of the inclusive court to my Department, and the work done by my hon. Friend and I focuses particularly on the needs of those with hidden disabilities. Accessibility is not just about the wheelchair ramp into court; it is about understanding those who have speech, language and communication difficulties, so that when they are in court they understand what is occurring.
I referred to the “Fit for the Future” document, but there is no Government document that cannot be refreshed when evidence changes. We are working hard to improve the quality of the court and tribunal estate. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was formed from a diverse range of earlier organisations. No one wants to see buckets in the court, or ripped seats, soggy walls, and chipped paintwork. Since 2016 we have invested more than £148 million in capital improvements, including the £15 million from the Treasury that so underwhelmed Andy Slaughter at the start of his speech. I agree that that would not solve every problem in the estate, but I think of it as a down payment in our initial efforts to make a difference. If anyone wishes to visit Blackpool court just outside my constituency boundary they, will see another court that is in serious need of investment, although we are hoping to move site very shortly. I am all too familiar with the need to ensure that we have a dignified court network and I recognise the role it plays in maintaining judicial morale.
Ellie Reeves mentioned digital services. The principal aim is not to close off routes to justice, but to open new ones. We will continue to support paper processes for those who need them. For some, that will still be the best route into our courts and tribunals, but for those who want to use digital services but have trouble doing so, we are providing a range of support to help to ensure the process is accessible to all through telephone support, webchat, or, when required, face-to-face support. We have seen an improvement with online applications for divorce. When it was paper-based, 40% of forms were being returned and that is now down to 2%. That makes life easier for those engaging with the process. Online pleas are possible for traffic offences and a significant number of online civil money claims are now taking place with significant support for those participating in them. However, as she mentioned, evaluation does matter. Merely because we can do something online does not mean that we should do it in each and every case, so it is right to interrogate the overall reform programme.
Court reform is just one way to deliver the inclusive court that I personally want to see. There is no location in the public realm where the vulnerability of the individual can place their liberty at greater risk than in our justice system. If justice is truly to be done, it is vital that all sides, whether as a defendant or as someone bringing a case, understand how justice is being done to them.
I am grateful to the Minister and I appreciate what he says. He raises a specific point about the justice system being seen to be available. One concern arising in evidence given to the Justice Committee about the use of online procedure is that we must be careful that it does not develop into a situation where justice is not done in public and is therefore not seen to be done. This is another case where it could be a good idea, but we have to be careful to get the balance right.
I have heard many of those concerns, not least from judges themselves, about the role of video hearings. I recognise that there is a particular sensitivity here, which I am exploring carefully.
I was going to mention the Select Committee’s report on magistracy—that is a complicated word for me to get out—which I thought was fantastic and chimed with much I have encountered already in my short time in the role. I met a young magistrate called Luke Rigg a couple of weeks ago. He is a shining example of those we wish to see taking up the role of magistrate. Magistrates are the glue that holds our justice system together and they often go unrecognised. I urge anyone watching this debate to seriously consider becoming a magistrate. It is a fantastic way to get under the skin of a local community and I hope that far more people will do it.
On that note, I thank all Members for their participation. They have given me plenty of food for thought in my early days. I look forward to being grilled more heavily when the Select Committee drags me before it.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister wants inclusive courts, but he needs to take note of the lack of data on the impact of court closures. Any future court closures will have a cumulative effect due to the closures that have already taken place. As my hon. Friend Richard Burgon said, we need to consider having a pause before any further court closures take place, because they will have an impact on the disadvantaged.
This has been an excellent debate and some excellent points have been made. I hope the Minister takes them on board and that we see a proper consultation process in the future where a difference is made, voices are heard and justice is the winner at the end of the day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered court closures and access to justice.