Government banks on digital justice as it unveils plans to close 20% of courts

Vara: difficult decisions

Vara: difficult decisions

The Ministry of Justice today put the onus on technology in delivering court and tribunal services as it unveiled plans to close 91 courts and tribunals across England and Wales, and merge a further 31.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) currently operates 460 courts and tribunal hearing centres across England and Wales and the plan is to close 57 magistrates’ courts, 19 county courts, two Crown Courts, four tribunal hearing centres and nine combined courts.

Launching a 12-week consultation today, courts minister Shailesh Vara said progress towards a modernised service was already being made, with Wi-Fi and digital screens introduced into many court buildings and a digital case management system for the administration of criminal cases “well underway”.

He continued: “This is encouraging progress, but more needs to be done. There is a broad consensus that the current system is unsustainable and that we have an opportunity to create a modern, more user-focused and efficient service.

“Increased use of technology such as video, telephone and online conferencing will help drive these improvements. Straightforward, transactional matters, such as paying a fine and obtaining probate can be dealt with using digital technology to make the processes as straightforward as filing a tax return. Many straightforward cases do not need face-to-face hearings which should be reserved for the most sensitive or complex cases.

“We can only provide better access to justice if we take difficult decisions to reduce the cost of our estate and reinvest the savings.”

The consultation said court utilisation levels remain “unacceptably low”, while digital ways of working will diminish the need for courtrooms further.

Mr Vara said the HMCTS estate currently cost taxpayers around half a billion pounds a year, but last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time.

“The buildings being consulted on represent 16% of hearing rooms across the estate which are, on average, used for only a third of their available time. That is equivalent to fewer than two out of five days in a week.

“The majority of these courts are not used for at least two-thirds of their available time, and one in three are not used three-quarters of the time. Attending court is rare for most people. It will still be the case that, after these changes, over 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car [and 83% a tribunal].”

Further, civic and other public buildings, such as town halls, will be used for hearings.

For the consultation and full list of proposed closures and mergers, click here.

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