As reported by the Guardian today, data recently published by the House of Commons library reveals that 162 of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales have been closed since 2010, a loss of 50.2%. As a result many court users - lawyers, justices of the peace, defendants, police, etc. - now have to travel more than 50 miles to access the courts system. The problem is becoming so bad that in areas with the sparsest provision, such as the North of England, HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is considering whether to provide taxis to defendants and witnesses coming to the courts from the most remote areas.
When deciding upon which courts to close, HMCTS employed a "distance model" that required 95% of the population to be within 2 hours travel (by public transport) of a court, and that 95% should be within 3 hours. However, many have questioned whether up-to 6 hours of travel for one day in court is reasonable or sustainable.
The court closures, and sales of the former court buildings, are tied to the need to release funds for the £1.2bn courts digitisation programme. However, the effectiveness of that programme was called into question only last week, with a series of problems - blamed on cyberattacks - creating serious service outages that brought courts across the country to a standstill.
An inquiry in HMCTS' reforms has been launched by the Common's Justice Select Committee. This will look at - amongst other things - the impact of closures and reductions in staffing, as well as whether online services and video hearings can be considered an adequate substitute for access to courts and tribunal buildings.