Another 86 courts across England and Wales will close over the next 18 months, forcing defendants, witnesses and lawyers to travel even further afield to obtain justice.
In a second round of thinning out the HM Courts & Tribunal Service’s depleted estate, magistrates courts, crown courts, county courts and tribunals will be sold to raise funds for investment in technology and judicial modernisation programmes.
About 140 courts shut following the last review in 2011. Falling crime rates, the need to save money and the prospect of developing online justice have combined to persuade ministers that old and underused courthouses should be turned into flats or fast-food restaurants.
The proportion of the population able to reach a magistrates court within an hour by public transport will fall, under the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) plans, from 82% to 74%.
Anglesey, with a population of 69,000, will no longer have any courts on the island. The neo-Jacobean Holyhead magistrates court building will be closed by June, meaning future defendants and witnesses will have to spend more than an hour and a half on train and bus – often in close proximity – travelling to Caernarfon criminal justice centre.
Many of the court buildings are unloved 1970s glass and brick monoliths. The rambling structure housing Bury St Edmunds’ magistrates, crown and family court, however, was built in 1841. Halifax’s imposing Grade II-listed county court dates from 1872, and Watford will lose its elegant 1930s magistrates court that adjoins the police station.
Announcing the closures, justice minister Shailesh Vara said: “Our courts and tribunal system is in need of urgent reform. Maintaining our underused and dilapidated court buildings costs the taxpayer £500m a year but some courts sit for less than half the time available.
“This is simply unsustainable. Closing these courts in poor quality buildings will raise £40m to reinvest in the justice system, and save hardworking taxpayers £27m per year.
“The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, but in the digital age I am confident we have measures in place to ensure access to justice is not diminished.”
Last year, 48% of all courts and tribunals were empty for at least half their available hearing time, according to the MoJ. On average, the 86 courts due to close had been used for just over a third of their available hearing time – equivalent to less than two days a week.
There has been widespread opposition to the latest review. Responding to the announcement, Malcolm Richardson, the national chairman of the , said: “The accessibility of local justice is the prime concern of our members, therefore such wide-ranging closures are worrying. Simple things like getting to and from court can have huge consequences for victims, witnesses, defendants and magistrates alike.
“We hope the Ministry of Justice will work with magistrates to focus its forward planning on coping with the additional pressures these closures will bring.”
Jo Edwards, the chair of family law organisation , said: “This is devastating news for thousands of separating families. Parents and children need to be able to access the justice system. That is why it’s disappointing to see the Ministry of Justice closing so many family courts across the country.
“Those affected the most by these closures will be vulnerable people such as victims of domestic abuse, young people and those who rely on public transport to get around.
“Resolution members, and many other organisations, have presented the government with local expertise and local knowledge which shows that their assessment of the true impact on people using the courts is patchy at best. For example, they haven’t presented any analysis of the impact on remaining courts.
“Instead of this simplistic, ill thought through exercise, ministers should be coming forward with detailed plans for modernising family courts. While we welcome the additional investment in remaining courts that the government has promised, this work needs to be done as a matter of urgency if the impact of these closures is to be mitigated.
“Unfortunately, parents and children will now be faced with closures at a time when the system is already struggling due to a devastating combination of funding cuts, fewer judges and an increase in the number of people representing themselves in the family court.”
Jonathan Smithers, the president of the , said: “We are disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with the closure of so many courts. The majority of these closures will make it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower-income families.
“Combined with increases in and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.”