A number of family law courts are under threat of closure as part of Michael Gove’s attempts to reduce Ministry of Justice expenditure by getting rid of England’s and Wales “surplus capacity” courts.
Currently it is understood that 91 courts and tribunals face closure; consisting of 57 magistrates’ courts, 19 county courts, two crown courts, four tribunal hearing centres and nine combined courts.
“Last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than 50% of their available hearing time,” commented Shailesh Vara, parliamentary under-secretary of state for courts and legal aid.
“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.”
According to the government, the money saved would be better redirected in improving access to justice; a position that many family law experts, including divorce lawyers, do not share unanimously.
The Public and Commercial Services union has said that the proposals will have a serious and negative impact on access to justice. It also questioned the Ministry of Justice’s methodology for calculating court usage.
The proposed measure is all part of the government’s attempt to reduce court system costs while also “modernising” the legal system, with a greater emphasis on online conferencing for all but “the most sensitive or complex of cases”.
It has also been mooted that in some locations public buildings could be utilised for hearings in place of “underused, poorly-maintained permanent courts”; a position that, understandably, has caused concern among many family law lawyers.
“With courts closures and cuts to legal aid, access to justice has been significantly restricted by the previous government and now this one,” commented the Public and Commercial Service union’s general secretary. “We do not believe it is in the interests of justice to leave our communities without easy access to courthouses and tribunals.”
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