Court closures have always been, and continue to be, a political danger zone. Last month, the Justice Secretary announced a £75 million investment programme for courts and tribunals, which has been attacked as a hidden plan to close courts. The Shadow Justice Secretary has criticised the prospect of further court closures on the one hand, but then in a recent article for The Guardian highlighted how courts could be streamlined by ‘stripping out duplication of court buildings in towns up and down the country.’ Politicians are visibly fearful to publicly favour court closures. It is understandable that fears of ‘justice deserts’ and longer travel times for court users mean that public opposition to local court closures is strong. But the purpose of our court buildings is changing, and at a time of tough budget constraints we must move away from the belief that local court closures are off-limits and question whether we really need the 500 court buildings still operating today.
We have continually seen how the decline in crime is resulting in steady falls of the workload passing through our courts. Despite Ken Clarke’s programme of 142 court closures in 2010, court utilisation rates have continued to decline, dropping from 58% to just 55% between 2011-12 and 2012-13. It is clear that simple mergers are not enough, and a strategic review of the court estate is needed.
The notion that the only way to maintain confidence in local justice is to have a permanent fixture of a local court building is outdated and undeliverable. Access to justice is paramount, but proximity is not the only way of ensuring this. In Policy Exchange’s recent report ‘Future Courts’ we highlighted the potential for magistrates to sit in more informal settings outside conventional court buildings, sitting in mobile or temporary courts in local community buildings to dispense justice. We also proposed an enhanced role for magistrates, including the supervision of offenders in the community, overseeing the administration of cautions, and spending more time engaging with their local communities to build public confidence. We must not ignore the potential that technology holds – videoconferencing is being increasingly used by courts linking prisons and police stations, and this should be developed to enable more witnesses to give evidence without travelling long distances to court.
In ‘Future Courts’ we proposed new ‘Justice Hubs’ – new, larger courthouses – that could gradually replace outdated and unfit for purpose buildings. A range of justice services could be co-located: criminal and civil courts, custody facilities, criminal justice agencies and voluntary organisations. This may sound like an ambitious, long-term ideal, but should not be dismissed – the Warwickshire Justice Centres have proved genuine successes as ‘one stop shops,’ where enhanced collaboration between agencies have resulted in radical improvements.
Modern courts would also bring huge benefits in terms of the experience of court users. The government is currently working to improve the treatment of victims in the criminal justice process, which is long overdue. But how can we succeed in doing so, when witnesses still have to give evidence in unfit for purpose courtrooms? Some are so badly designed for the accommodation of special measures that, even with the use of a screen, a witness still risks seeing the defendant as they are moved to and from the dock. Only the very new courthouses provide separate entrances for victims and witnesses, leaving many with the fear of coming face to face with a perpetrator or their family. Although modernised buildings do not provide the complete answer to tackling the entrenched problems faced by victims in the criminal justice system, specially designed, modern courthouses are an important step to better prioritising their needs.
With HMCTS expected to deliver a 38% reduction in its budget between 2012 and 2016, rationalisation of the court estate is likely to place high on the agenda. The government must not shy away from the prospect of further court closures, but must ensure that any further rationalisation of the court estate is supported by meaningful steps to protect, develop and expand the infrastructure of the court system at the local level. Court closures may not be seen as a vote winner, but as other areas of the justice system are hit hard by cuts such as legal aid, we must stop perceiving court closures as a ‘no-go’ area and recognise that closures would not only provide much needed savings, but offer real opportunity to reform and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system.