Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Court Closures

When new Justice Secretary David Gauke appeared before the Justice Select Committee last week it was clear he wasn't fully on top of his brief and resorted to what could best be described as 'holding' answers. For example, he didn't seem to grasp that with the impending closure of Northallerton Magistrates Court, it would be impossible to travel by public transport to Harrogate instead. He effectively just shrugged his shoulders. This from the Guardian picks up the sorry story of court closures:-   

Court closures: sale of 126 premises raised just £34m, figures show

‘Ideological’ sell-off limits access to justice, says Labour, leaving many far from their nearest court

The government’s courts closure programme is creating geographical gaps that restrict access to justice while raising pitifully small sums from the sale of most buildings, Labour has said. According to analysis of newly released figures, the sale of 126 court premises in England and Wales since 2010 has raised a total of £34m – each going for little more than the average house price.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, has accused the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of pursuing sell-offs aggressively before a £1bn court modernisation programme – relying on remote video hearings and online mechanisms – has proved viable. His comments have been reinforced by the justice select committee, which has written to the MoJ pointing out that plans to change the way in which travel-to-court times are measured may undermine the presumption that defendants and witnesses can attend a hearing and return within a day.

The closure of Northallerton magistrates court could force court users to travel instead to Harrogate, for example, a journey by bus which takes three hours and 22 minutes one way. “We question the assumption that virtual hearings will, and should, increasingly take the place of physical access to hearing rooms,” the MPs on the committee cautioned.

Since 2010, the MoJ has closed at least 230 crown, county and magistrates courts. The initial rationale was that crime levels and the number of court cases were falling. Some of the buildings have yet to be sold. The money raised and savings achieved are being diverted into the court modernisation programme.

A breakdown of the figures, which were released in a parliamentary question, show that £224m has been raised so far. Almost two-thirds of that sum was generated by the sale of just nine courts on prime sites in and around London. Hammersmith magistrates court made £43m, the technology and construction court in central London fetched £25m and Horseferry Road magistrates court went for £20m. At the opposite end of the scale, Ely magistrates court was disposed of for just £1, Rochdale magistrates court was auctioned for £6,316 and Consett country court made only £13,735. The 100 cheapest courthouse disposals, Labour researchers calculated, raised just £19.8m in total.

Many buildings were undistinguished, municipal architecture dating back to the 1970s and 80s. Some buildings have found other uses. Knutsford crown court, which dates back to the early 19th century, was sold for £1.6m and became a hotel and restaurant.

“These figures do nothing to assuage fears that the government’s wave of court sell-offs is driven by blinkered ideology with scant regard for the impact on access to justice in whole swathes of the country,” Burgon said. “Selling off over a hundred local courts each for not much more than the average UK house price piles yet more pressure on the remaining courts and risks hearings being further delayed and rescheduled. This can have a distressing impact on victims and witnesses and creates a justice system that’s less accessible for local people. The Conservatives justify their mass sell-off of local justice facilities with talk of the digitisation of our courts .... Despite awarding contracts worth tens of millions, the government has admitted to not undertaking sufficient research on the effectiveness of court hearings by video link and still refuses to publish the business case for this modernisation programme.”

In the Commons on Tuesday, the Labour MP Ruth George said that the closure of Buxton magistrates court meant her constituents had to travel 40 miles to court. “The police say it now takes a whole day to take someone to court and back,” she said. The shadow justice minister Yasmin Qureshi called for a moratorium on court closures until the new court bill had been debated by parliament.

Steve Hynes, the director of the Legal Action Group, which campaigns for better access to justice, said he feared people would decline to be witnesses or bring claims. “I can foresee real difficulties in witnesses getting to court,” he said.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “This government is investing over £1bn to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer. Since April 2016 we have raised £115m from the sale of underused court buildings – over £34m more than forecast, and every penny of this will be reinvested as part of our modernisation plans. As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings.”


Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice has written extensively on the subject of court closures and the whole court 'modernisation' programme and has just produced a very thorough briefing document.

Court closures - trying to get a quart into a pint pot?

How many courts do you need to close before the system grinds to a halt? Ever since the government took over the ownership of courts from local authorities in 2005, they have been closing them down at a fierce rate such that there are now 250 fewer courts in England and Wales.

There is a proposal on the table now to close 8 more courts, including relatively new ones like Cambridge and Maidenhead magistrates' courts and Blackfriars Crown Court. The courts service (HMCTS) insist that all the criminal courts being closed are significantly under used and their work can be accommodated in nearby courts. But the calculations are not entirely convincing

- Its assumed that the volume of work carried out now will not increase. This doesn't take account of fluctuations in prosecutions, or that constraints on staff resources currently limit the number of cases heard. When cases can be listed depends on having enough judges and court staff. But the number of magistrates has halved and the number of court staff been cut by a quarter in recent years. So the empty court rooms could be used, and cases heard more promptly, if there were more people to hear the cases.

- They calculate that criminal court work can be divided into units of an hour and thus one hour under-used in a court marked for closure can be slotted into a one hour gap in an existing court. But trials hardly ever take just an hour, so time under-used at Blackfriars Crown Court cannot easily be transferred to Southwark instead. Some spare capacity is needed in courts anyway - to accommodate cases that over-run. As it is, witnesses and defendants who are at court are often turned away because they've run out of time to hear their case that day.

- HMCTS estimate travel times from a court user's home to court on the basis of travelling from one town centre to another. So in the case of Cambridge, whose magistrates' court is earmarked for closure, the journeys are calculated from the towns in Cambridgeshire (Huntingdon, St Neots, Ely), not from the countryside. Someone living 15 miles south east of Cambridge, who might currently be able to get into the city by bus in 45 minutes, will take considerably longer than the 1 hour 10 minutes estimated as the journey time between Cambridge and Huntingdon (the proposed new court) by public transport.

The reason why courts are being closed is because they will in most cases be replaced by virtual ("trial by skype") and online courts, so only those attending and taking part in Crown Court trials will go to an actual court. I'm not clear how this whole proposed scenario will improve access to justice, and the risk is the system will descend into chaos. Pending the development of the brave new virtual world, court users will be expected to spend hours travelling to court, navigating complicated journeys. Witnesses will vote with their feet by not turning up at all, while defendants will be even later than they already are, or fail to appear and have to be arrested on warrant. This is the worst case scenario. I really hope it doesn't happen - which is why I urge all you weary people to put your cynicism aside and respond to one or more of the current consultations on court closures.


Finally, here's a piece from January in the Guardian on the costs of the modernisation programme and the MoJ's by-now legendary ability to waste public money:-

MoJ spending huge sums on consultants to help deliver digital courts

Critics express concerns, pointing to lack of detail about contracts as well as history of failure and delays in government IT projects

The Ministry of Justice is spending tens of millions of pounds on management consultants to help deliver online and digital court programmes that are designed to save money and improve access to justice. The £30m is being paid to PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, as part of a £1bn drive to modernise the courts and expand the types of hearings that can be conducted via computer.

Another major contract, worth £1.3 million, has been won by the consulting firm Methods, which subcontracts some of the work to the outsourcing company Accenture to provide “change management strategy” to help guide the judiciary through until 2022. Additional undisclosed sums have been paid to EY, formerly Ernst and Young. Few details of the scheme, which is being managed by the MoJ’s executive arm, HM Courts and Tribunal Service, have emerged but the tendering contract states that it aims to “transform our technology and to transform our own skills and capabilities”.

The senior judiciary, who will ensure new methods of working are consistent with legal requirements for a fair trial, have become intimately involved in supervising the programme. The large sums are being spent at a time of widespread cuts to legal aid and crumbling infrastructure, with courthouses and prisons in need of repair.

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate, questioned whether the scheme would improve access to justice. “We recently learned that there are puddles of urine in the cells of Liverpool prison and Liam Allan was nearly convicted of rape because police and prosecution lack the resources to do their job,” she said. “Meanwhile the Ministry of Justice has paid over £30m to fund external management consultants to support ‘change management’ in their digital court reform programme. The management consultants are focused on ‘successful delivery’ but we don’t know what they are supposed to be delivering since there is no published plan for the digital court reform programme and the PWC contract isn’t published either. If they are being rewarded for increasing access to justice, that’s great, but can we see how that will be assessed?”

Given the history of failures and delays in major government IT projects, PwC’s financial rewards are being made dependent on successful delivery of the online and digital court programmes. It is understood that a considerable proportion of the firm’s £30m fee is being spent on specialist suppliers and subcontractors. PwC will be expected to build up skills among HMCTS staff so they eventually take over responsibility for running the software.

Asked about the contract, an HMCTS spokesperson said: “This is the most ambitious programme of its kind anywhere in the world. We are investing more than £1bn over a six-year period to modernise outdated processes and create a swifter, more accessible and more efficient justice system for the public. Our contract with PwC replaces a number of contracts with external suppliers, and ensures we benefit from specialist skills to deliver our reforms and get best value for money for the taxpayer.”

It is unclear how many cases can be transferred out of the courtroom and on to a laptop screen. Successive MoJ economy drives have led to the closure of about 250 courts across England and Wales since 2011. They have been justified partially on the grounds of falling crime rates and partially on the need to develop more flexible working practices.

Civil cases that have been transferred online include applications for divorce, probate and small claims. Low-level offences such as fare evasion, traffic offences and fishing without a licence are among the first being dealt with online. More than 3,000 members of the public are said to have used pilot digital systems so far.

Asked about the type of cases going online earlier this month, the new lord chief justice said at his annual press conference that a new digital criminal case system had already saved the need to print 33m pages of paper. “When we reach our goal, it should be possible for a very large number of civil disputes to be resolved using online facilities with appropriate judicial input when it is needed, but rarely requiring the parties to attend court,” said Lord Burnett of Maldon.

Whole categories of hearings such as listing cases, simple bail applications and entering pleas will “in future not require the routine attendance of everybody at court on every occasion”, he said. Telephone hearings had been routine in civil courts for 20 years, he added, what was important was that judges retained control of cases even if no one else was in court.

There have been concerns that online justice forms could make it too easy for unrepresented defendants to plead guilty in order to dispose of a court summons without realising that may result in a criminal record. There has been some criticism that the judiciary is becoming too closely identified with the court modernisation programme. Andrew Langdon QC, a former chair of the Bar Council, said: “There is a risk that in the future we will evaluate our judges on their ability to be effective managers rather than fearless independent judges who are independent of the executive.”


  1. Victoria Darbyshire, BBC tv - I see Mr Lawrence has yet again failed to impress with his media skills; firstly by being selected to be on VictoriaLive because he is AGAINST (?!?) greater transparency of the Parole Board - contrary to the views of Nick Hardwick, Human Rights lawyers, womens safety groups, etc; then by completely failing to answer the question put to him about the range of available Licence conditions, getting tangled up in jargon & describing approved premises as "a high risk situation". I didn't have a clue what he meant & Victoria Darbyshire's puzzled expression said it all.

    Cheers Ian! Do you think you've finally managed to enlighten the public about your members' important role in the CJS?

    And no, I couldn't do a better job. But I don't get £70,000+ a year to have a concrete belief that I can do something I can't. I'm sure as shit there's someone more capable out there... but in the current climate there probably won't be any 'probation workers' left by the end of the year anyway.

    1. Michael Spurr is rumoured to be interested in a new position

    2. I hope still people recall that Lawrence appeared on Russia Today. I remember saying at the time that it was unpatriotic to appear on such a channel and that he should be thoroughly ashamed. I take no delight that subsequent events have proven me right.

    3. "Senior Tories have declared thousands of pounds in the House of Commons register for appearing on Sam Delaney’s News Thing, a satirical chat show broadcast by RT.
      Mike Freer, now an assistant government whip, played a game called Who Do You Reckon Might Be Gay?, speculating on the sexuality of the Islamic State fighters and the boxer Tyson Fury. He said that his £1,000 fee covered “TV appearance and preparation”.
      Welsh MP David Davies, who chairs the Welsh affairs select committee, has accepted £1,500 for two appearances on News Thing, as has Nigel Evans, MP for the Ribble Valley.
      Backbenchers Crispin Blunt, Sir David Amess, Daniel Kawczynski and Philip Davies also appeared on RT."

      Ian Lawrence tainted by Anon at 20:05 13 March 2018, as unpatriotic - is in good company along with others according to the quote from The Times above.

      Please lets be grownup here!


    4. Lawrence and co get paid a lot more than that. The question is are they worth a fraction of that since the union and its income have declined. Branches are in retreat in NPS and CRC are being consumed by the inexperienced poor central involvement to crcs. It cannot all be put on one?

  2. Do complete the online forms about the proposals to close courts.You will be spitting feathers etc by the end but unless there are objections those in suits will think it is ok to keep closing local magistrates courts.

  3. Rumours have long been around in Lancashire that the cunning plan is to close all mags courts and have one super court in Preston...now look at how far the other end of the county is.....shires are not connurbations

  4. Should not fundamental changes to how Justice is done and importantly seen to be done be part of a wider public discourse, trialled and proceeded with cautiously? I say this on the basis that Justice is believed to be an important part of how we value our national identity, is a solemn and careful undertaking? Am I alone in thinking that this risks being another reckless experiment without such an approach?

  5. It comes as no surprise the decision to release John Worboys' was apparently influenced by assessments from three independent psychologists, all of whom at some stage had been instructed by Worboys. ... This "highly exceptional step" to release direct from a Cat A prison was "in the face of opposition" from senior prison managers, prison psychologists, the probation service and the justice secretary. Obviously no mention of the governmental pressure to release all IPP prisoners.


    I’m sure NPS director Sonia Crozier will still find something to apologise for!!