The consultation on the closure of 91 courts across England and Wales closes on 8th October 2015. Ordinary people have endured a significant narrowing in access to justice in recent years, with cuts to legal aid and restrictions to judicial review. The threat of a physical bar to justice has now been raised, and we must resist it.
The threatened courts are all over England and Wales, and the closures would no doubt inconvenience and cost a great deal of lawyers, Local Authorities and private individuals. They would no doubt prevent some vulnerable individuals from attending court at all. I will talk about Lambeth County Court, because this is the court that most of my clients use. However, I am sure that the impact would be even greater in more rural areas, where the distance between courts is greater.
One of the justifications for court closures is that courts are underused. The figure used in relation to Lambeth Count Court is that “during the financial year 2014-2015, Lambeth County Court was utilised for approximately 39% of its capacity.” It is unclear precisely what this figure means, and a Freedom of Information Request has been made asking for clarity. It is believed that this figure was taken at a time when one of the judges was on extended leave, and is therefore not a true representation of the normal use of the court. In any event, although the delays at Lambeth County Court are far less severe than at other Court Courts, such as Central London County Court (CLCC), it is certainly not the case that the court is full of judges in empty courtrooms twiddling their thumbs. A hearing listed to be heard at the court’s the next open date will often be heard several months in the future. Trials are often sent to CLCC, rather than be heard at Lambeth County Court. When the consultation refers to capacity, they are talking about empty rooms with no judges in. The answer surely is to fill the rooms with judges, not to close the rooms. The need for judges is there.
Making litigants wait for justice is a false economy. It costs Local Authorities, who are possibly the largest users of the court, both as Claimant and Defendant. It costs in legal aid bills and it costs private individuals and companies. The longer a case goes on, the more everyone pays. It does not make sense to think about savings in terms of the Ministry of Justice’s budget only. The other services funded by government, and even those by private individuals and companies, must also be considered. A waste of time and money is not good for the economy.
The consultation considers that there will not be waiting, and that physically attending court may be a thing of the past, as technology will step in. They talk of video, telephone and online conferencing and say that “many straightforward cases do not need face to face hearings which should be reserved for the most sensitive or complex cases.” It is certainly true that technology could improve the court system, which is heavily paper based and outdated. Video and telephone conferencing can be appropriate in certain circumstances, but courtroom video-links often suffer technical problems, and produce a poor quality of sound. Telephone hearings are fine for brief hearings between lawyers on procedural matters, but when one party is a litigant in person, or evidence has to be heard, it is not appropriate. There is no substitute for a face to face hearing to enable the parties to fully communicate their representations. Litigants in person may not have access to the technology needed to video conference.
All cases currently at Lambeth County Court are proposed to be moved to Wandsworth County Court, in Putney, if the closures go ahead. The consultation proposes that 93% of court users will be able to get to court by public transport in 30-60min. It is unclear how these figures were arrived at. However, I can say with some certainty that these figures did not take into account that many vulnerable court users, many travelling to court for possession hearings or regarding a debt, can only afford to use the bus. These times can be easily doubled.
Some may argue that attending court is rare, even for those with the most chaotic lives, and if people have to travel a little further then so be it. Working on the County Court Duty Scheme for unrepresented Defendants in possession claims gives you a different perspective. You are given a list of usually 25-30 Defendants who have cases listed for that day. Some days only 3 Defendants will come. Some will have found representation, some will have made deals with their landlord (or thought they have), some will have just given up. But there are some who are struggling with life, and only just make the hearing, or only just miss it. There will be more who will miss it if going to court involves getting three long buses to an unknown place.