The government has decided to press on with its decision to shut down two London courts despite an overwhelmingly negative response to its consultation. The closures are in addition to its recent cull of 86 courts across the country which included 10 in the capital. According to a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation responses published yesterday, 53 of 62 respondents opposed selling off Camberwell Green magistrates’ court and 48 of 53 respondents opposed selling Hammersmith.
The court service launched a consultation on the fate of the two courts last September. Proceeds from the sale of buildings would be reinvested into court modernisation programme.
The MoJ insists that ‘the majority of the people living in the areas affected by the court closures’ would be ‘within an acceptable travelling distance of the court where the work is transferred to’. Whilst it acknowledged that increased journeys had ‘the potential to impact some people with protected characteristics, we consider it unlikely that this will result in a particular or substantial disadvantage to most court users’. ‘Many of the services traditionally accessed by face to face visits to court are being offered online,’ it continued. ‘Some court hearings can also be conducted via telephone or video link and court users are being offered local alternatives to court hearings (mediation). All of these measures are reducing the need to travel to court buildings to access HMCTS services.’
The consultation concluded that the closures were ‘a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of an affordable, efficient court estate’.
One respondent said that the closure of Camberwell Green would take away ‘a vital local court for people living in this borough’. ‘The alternative venues (Croydon, Bromley, Wimbledon) are too far to travel, so victims and defendants will find it hard due to distance and cost to get to court and court time will be lost as a result,’ they said.
Another argued that reallocation of court business would ‘provoke clashes between rival gangs appearing on the same date or at the same building’. ‘The further distance to be travelled will result in a large number of failures to attend. No other proposal than using the existing building is viable,’ they said. ‘Most young defendants are strangely parochial and fearful of travel outside their postcodes. Anyone who has seen a terrified 16 year-old frantically summoning his friends to court to escort him out of the building because opposition gang members are waiting outside will understand the reality of this.’
One respondent accused the government of ‘doing a BBC’. ‘Opening a building which clearly represents substantial investment in design and construction, using it for a few years (20 in the case of Hammersmith), then deciding to close it,’ they wrote.
The Law Society president Robert Bourns said it was ‘just extraordinary the government would close Camberwell Green magistrates’ court less than a year after it spent so much public money making it fit for 21st century justice’. He called the closures ‘ill-considered given government has carried out a no more than cursory assessment of the impact on access to justice of the very recent closure of 86 courts across England and Wales, including 10 in London’.
‘We support government efforts to improve court efficiency through better use of technology, as was being introduced in Camberwell Green. However, the modernisation process will take time. It cannot fill the immediate gap created by each court closure. Every time a court is closed further pressure is placed on those courts, personnel and judiciary that remain,’ Bourns said. ‘No matter who you are, no matter where you live, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access legal advice and the justice system.’
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