Response to the proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales
Jane Basham, Vice Chair, South Suffolk Labour Party, October 2015
Question 1: Do you agree with the proposals? What overall comments would you like to make on the proposals?
We do not agree with the proposal to close the courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft. We are disappointed that the assault on access to justice continues. The consultation document makes sweeping statements and generalisations that do not appear to be backed up by any evidence or provide any context. The outcome feels predetermined.
South Suffolk constituency is amongst the most rural in Suffolk. The geography of South Suffolk (from Shotley Peninsula to Cavendish and Clare) means people in South Suffolk access both Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds courts. Core public services are provided by Babergh District Council, St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Suffolk County Council. Suffolk has for many years been an advice desert. In terms of overall access to justice for those with limited means it is important to note that Suffolk has never had a Community Law Centre.
Community transport services are currently facing 50% cuts over the next 5 years. Where they do exist they are inaccessible and unaffordable.
As one mother, who had fled domestic violence told us in October last year when we were working with families on the closure of their Children’s Centre.
"They aren’t seriously expecting me to get to Sudbury? I don’t drive. I have 2 children and one child is in nursery. If I did need to access the Children’s Centre for my baby I couldn’t afford the £5 bus fare and even if I could – the buses only run every 2 hours so I wouldn’t be able to get there and back in time to collect my child from nursery." Mum, Glemsford.
Many people in our area do not have access to private transport. The State of Suffolk report identified this as 1 in 10 rural households across Suffolk (just over 13,000).
Question 2. Will the proposals for the provision of court and tribunal services have a direct impact on you? If yes, please provide further details.
As a local political organisation, we have over 700 members and supporters from all walks of life, including union and elected representatives. The majority are eligible for selection as jurors. Some have personal and direct experiences of accessing justice while others are actively working with individuals, helping them through difficult times. This includes fighting for disappearing grants to support those on low income with travel costs, to physically driving people to courts.
We are in no doubt that there will be a negative and tangible impact on local people. This is not just as victims of crime: they may be parties to court proceedings, defendants, witnesses, probation personnel, police etc.
The loss of local accessible courts will also have a negative impact on the proposed alternative courts. Will Ipswich be able to cope? Delays in accessing justice are extremely damaging for victims, defendants and their families. Delays also impact on other agencies such as Victim Support, Refuges, Policing, Probation.
Victim Support (an independent charity) is actively encouraging the government to make court processes more efficient. They state that the Crown Court system is now taking longer than at any point in the past 15 years to process cases and that the backlog of outstanding cases is more than 54,000.
Question 3: Are there other particular impacts of the proposals that HM Courts & Tribunals Service should take into account when making a decision? Please provide details.
A rural impact assessment needs to be undertaken.
We are lucky that our local paper is supporting the fight for justice in Suffolk. The East Anglian Daily Times research has found that in terms of magistrates’ courts per square mile, Suffolk would be the worst area in the country. Should closure proceed, would have one magistrate court covering 1,466 square miles whereas Norfolk would have one magistrates’ court per 692 sq mile, Cambridgeshire per 655 sq mile, 414 per sq mile in Nottinghamshire, 355 per sq mile in Essex,and per 162 sq mile in Berkshire.
The consultation is wrong in its assertion that the proposals will allow 95% of citizens across England and Wales to be able to reach their required court within an hour by car.
"I live in a village near Sudbury and had to attend court proceedings relating to the custody of my children in Ipswich. I had to get 2 buses to get there. Despite catching the first bus from my village, roadworks and traffic meant huge delays and I was late for court. I can’t describe the stress I experienced knowing I was going to be late. I felt judged when I eventually arrived part way through the proceedings." Mum, South Suffolk.
The notional journey times referenced in the consultation document discount the incidence of regular and predictable traffic congestion together with unpredictable time delays caused by road traffic collisions, The latter are particularly frequent en route via the A12 and A14 to Lowestoft and Ipswich.
Question 4. Our assessment of the likely impacts and supporting analysis is set out in the Impact Assessment accompanying this consultation. Do you have any comments on the evidence used or conclusions reached? Please provide any additional evidence that you believe could be helpful.
The impact assessment appears to have been completed by someone with no understanding of its purpose. It lacks data and evidence and makes assumptions about how technology is accessed by people.
Some of those made most vulnerable by our society are young and older people, women, those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and people with disabilities. People who work directly with individuals tell us that advocacy and representation agencies – very often linked to the cuts to the voluntary and community sector and public sector, are struggling to cope; that some people from these ‘groups’ are already finding it increasingly impossible to access justice. Your impact assessment is silent on these matters.
Question 5. Are there alternatives to travelling to a physical building that would be a benefit to some users? These could include using technology to engage remotely or the use of other, civic or public buildings for hearings as demand requires. Please explain your answer, with specific examples and evidence of the potential demand for the service where possible.
We welcome the idea of better use of technology but the MoJ’s track record in introducing technological advances is not very inspiring.
Some of us have worked with individuals in family and criminal courts – literacy and being IT proficient are real issues. Homeless young people for example, or those who lead chaotic lives often face court with no access to an advocate or legal representative let alone access to computer technology.
The idea that users of courts can have some say over how they access court is fantasy. Everyone is agreed that the system needs to be changed. We’d recommend a clear strategy for this change, based on evidence and consultation, before any Courts are closed.
As we are seeing public access buildings disappearing at pace, linked to privatization and the cuts, we wonder which buildings could be alternatives?
There are security issues in using general buildings. We have more secure docks than ever in Magistrate Courts. The recent death of security guard Elaine Barwell is an example of the threats faced by those involved in the criminal courts system.
The anonymity of a court building is also important. Turning up at the local community centre or Town Hall where you may bump into someone you know will inevitably deter people from accessing justice or coming forward as witnesses.
Question 6: Please provide any additional comments that you have.
John Smithers, President of the Law Society warns the ‘Governments excessive cost cutting in the legal sector is compromising access to justice.’
The consultation document comments that court buildings are underused. Again there is no context provided. Some court buildings may have struggled from a lack of investment, but that is no reason to close them. Some of the court usage problems are as a direct result of the need for reform of court procedures.
But there are other factors at work here, and the Government could be described as ‘driving down demand’.
- Savage cuts to legal aid has seen 60,000 fewer claimants. This now means justice eludes those who cannot afford to pay for it.
- Legal Aid cuts are resulting in people attending court with no advice, which means they are unlikely to receive a fair hearing.
- Being able to access sound legal advice can reduce unnecessary court hearings – as claims can be settled out of court.
- The introduction of the criminal court charge, imposes an automatic charge of £1,000 on defendants (whether they can pay or not) if they plead not guilty but are then found guilty in a magistrates court.
- Civil court fees have increased by 600% in some cases. This deters people from accessing the court process. It also means insurers for example may offer lower levels of compensation knowing the person doesn’t have the means to take them to court. This directly disadvantages the already disadvantaged.
To conclude we believe access to justice is crucial for a civilised and socially just society. It is a key pillar of our welfare state and local courts are the cornerstone of access. Local Courts mean local people can see justice being done. The proposal to close our courts means people will no longer be able to access justice in rural South Suffolk. This we believe is a breach of Article 6 of the Convention of Human Rights-
‘The right to a fair trial’ – this right applies to everyone- regardless of financial means.
Thank you for providing us with the opportunity to comment and we look forward to your response.