Selling off our courts is like selling off the family silver

My local court is closing for the third time. It’s hard not to take it personally. I don’t want it to close, as my work got transferred there just two years ago, when Hammersmith Court was shut. But the decision has been made. Meanwhile Hammersmith Court, newly built, still stands empty – now used for filming court room scenes.

I wish I’d made up that last sentence – but it’s true. Local MP, Andy Slaughter was invited to watch as a TV production company filmed, what might have been ‘Law and Order’, or something similar. He told me that it was cramped in the cells below with the cast and production crew. Not surprising –  they are real cells after all.

  • Justice in a Time of Austerity is a collaboration between Jon Robins of the Justice Gap and Dr Daniel Newman of Cardiff University supported by the City law firm Ashurst. Over the next 12 months Daniel and Jon will be reporting on the impact of the 2013 legal aid cuts

  • Articles will appear on the Justice Gap (here) as well as on LegalVoice

  • Listen to Sue James and Dr Olumide Adisa of Sussex University talk to Catherine Reed about the impact of the court closures in a Law Society podcast

It made me wonder what had happened to the other courts that had closed across the country: the 250 plus buildings once dispensing justice, now being used for what? Hotels? Flats? Or just empty. I thought about inviting people on twitter to send pictures. Mine would be a coffee house called Verdict – which once had a life as Brentford Magistrates Court.

I felt sad whist buying my latte in Verdict (I had to take a look). It’s a beautiful building, originally intended to be the town hall, but by 1852 housed the Magistrates and County Court, with library and meeting rooms. It was a community asset. Selling this off is like selling off the family silver.

But it’s anger I really feel about that the sale of our court buildings. They have been sold off without any public consultation, and without any research on the social effects on access to justice. We don’t know the impact yet, but the drive to sell and to ‘transform’ continues.

According to the National Audit Office Report in May this year: ‘Delivering change on this scale at pace means that the court service risks making decisions before it understands the system-wide consequences.’ The Public Accounts Committee was so concerned that they set up their own inquiry. The committee chair Meg Hillier MP commented:

‘Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.
Our report recommends action to address these failings. But even if this programme, or a version of it, gets back on track I have serious concerns about its unforeseen consequences for taxpayers, service users and justice more widely.
There is an old line in the medical profession—’the operation was successful but the patient died’.
It is difficult to see how these reforms could be called a success if the result is to undermine people’s access to justice and to pile further pressure on the police and other critical public services.’

Yet it continues. Because closures and the reductions in staffing are needed to fund the IT – as if it’s the panacea to all that is wrong in the court system. When what is really needed is funding, decent investment in our justice system, and a belief that it’s worth it. Justice used to have a majesty, an authority. It’s not an administrative process, neither is it a commodity, like a tin of beans that you can strip of quality and throw in the bargain bucket. It just won’t work.

The courts that remain open are crumbling, the fabric decaying, without any investment. We constantly read on social media of the condition of the buildings. It’s indicative of the decay that is occurring behind the scenes in the court offices – the chaos of listing, lack of judges and jurors, IT not working, and delay in hearings.

And that’s if you can get to court. When the ‘transformation’ started the analysis of distance to travel to court was based on a two hour journey. Now it’s a whole day.  In Suffolk some villages are 40 miles away from the nearest court, with one bus per day.  Defendants are being arrested for ‘failure to show’ as they simply can’t get to court. The police have effectively become a taxi service for hard to access magistrates’ courts – shunting the court service’s costs savings on to the police.

We know this because a report from Dr Olumide Adisa of Suffolk University shone a light on the problems of court closures locally (see here). It’s a small research project. We need more.

South London has been hit hard by court closures. Both Lambeth and Bow County Court closed in 2017, their work moving to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court. Since then my colleagues tell me the possession duty lists are longer, but less people are turning up to defend their cases and to save their homes. We don’t know the reason for this or the impact. It’s possible they can’t travel long distances across the city; it’s too costly when you’re on benefit and much more difficult if you have mental and physical disabilities and caring responsibilities. More than half of clients accessing help on possession days have these protected characteristics.

So you can understand my concern when the court service decided that Hammersmith cases should be sent to Clerkenwell too – the equivalent of four courts into one. To say it’s in chaos is an understatement. Currently running with 70% agency staff, my colleagues tell me: telephones are not answered, paperwork is lost or never replied to, five minute adjourned hearings are taking as many months, some cases never made the journey from south to north London and are now ‘lost in the system’, as well as bailiffs evicting people despite warrants being suspended.

It has to be an irrational decision to consider sending my work to Clerkenwell, surely? Especially when there’s another court only one bus ride away which currently has three empty courts (as they are not allowed to list Deputy District Judges’ until March 2019). It doesn’t have a magistrates court any longer but it still has a county court  – and some good coffee.

Austerity banner

About Sue James

Sue has been a housing solicitor for more than 20 years. She has worked in a number of law centres and private practice. In addition she was a mental health solicitor representing the most vulnerable people detained under the Mental Health Act. She has a strategic role in the running of Hammersmith Law Centre where she is currently employed as the responsible legal officer

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *