County and magistrates’ court closures: coming soon to a town near you
The Law Society has published an interactive map (available on its website) of areas where the government is proposing to close local county courts, magistrates’ courts or both, as well as tribunal venues. The map also shows where the cases would move to and how long it would take by public transport to get to the alternative venues. In the last parliament, nearly 150 courts were closed, including many local magistrates’ courts, so this trend is now being accelerated and is linked to procurement plans for fewer criminal defence suppliers covering larger areas.
The society is asking for practitioners’ input so it can compile a detailed dossier of what impact the changes will have on clients, lawyers and the local administration, accessibility and quality of justice in their areas. If any courts are to be saved from closure, it is essential that the society has substantial evidence to present to the Ministry of Justice, with detailed analysis on why any of the proposed alternative arrangements are unworkable. Other evidence, such as negative impact on the local economy, would also be helpful.
LAG believes the closures have implications not only for access to justice, but also for the rule of law and the maintenance of the justice system itself. There may be other implications too: local businesses need access to the courts in order to thrive and local authority links with justice agencies may be weakened by the closures – as may crime prevention initiatives. Previous experience shows that the anticipated savings may fail to materialise if defunct court buildings cannot, as hoped, be sold off to developers for housing or used for other public purposes.