CLOSING COURTS: MORE MADNESS AND MAYHEM FROM HMCTS: CLOSING MORE COURTS & NO PROPER RESEARCH (BUT THEY’VE PAID £30 MILLION TO “CONSULTANTS” SO EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE

Anyone concerned with access to justice knows that this includes physical access. There have to be courts for people to go to.I want to encourage everyone to read and to respond to the HMCTS document “Fit for the future: transforming the court and tribunal estate”.

I do not intend to leave this subject of court closures alone.  It is clearly being badly thought out and badly implemented.  The criticisms come from sources that know far better than HMCTS the impact they are having. There is a total absence of any credible (or indeed any) research into the impact of this on the administration of justice.  We have the farcical position where Manchester civil courts have more District Judges than court rooms.

“Perhaps the most startling bit of this document is in the appendix. Annex C is an independent review by Professor Martin Chalkley of the University of York on how HMCTS should calculate whether to close a court on efficiency grounds. This seems to blow out of the water one of the key assumptions underpinning previous proposals to close courts – that all courts should ideally be working at full capacity. “

TRANSFORM JUSTICE’S REVIEW

Before the “consultation” document is read, however, read the commentary from Transform Justice, available here.  A brief summary.

 

  1. It still seems clear that the government will close hundreds more courts and tribunals
  2. “Now they say a reasonable journey involves someone leaving home no earlier than 7.30am and returning home by 7.30pm. So they think a public transport journey of two hours each way is reasonable. But they say nothing about how someone looking after children/using daycare would be able to manage this, nor how defendants and defence witnesses would be able to afford the fares. They also admit that at least 5% of the population will not be able to get to court on time (9.30am) even if they do leave at 7.30am.”
  3. “if people who use online/video courts get a a more negative outcome compared to those who use physical courts then disabled people who are encouraged to use online/video justice may get a second class service.”
  4. “Unfortunately we still have no good data on who court users are and thus who might be affected by court closures. “
  5. “Perhaps the most startling bit of this document is in the appendix. Annex C is an independent review by Professor Martin Chalkley of the University of York on how HMCTS should calculate whether to close a court on efficiency grounds. This seems to blow out of the water one of the key assumptions underpinning previous proposals to close courts – that all courts should ideally be working at full capacity. “
  6. I am a bit mystified why Professor Chalkley did this review pro bono (p43) given that PWC consultants are being paid £30 million by HMCTS. Surely he should be properly paid to do further research into how courts can be most efficiently used

THE RESPONSE OF THE DISTRICT JUDGES

This absence of proper evidence on the impact of court closure is worrying. We know that there is a strong suspicion that “consultations” are fairly token documents in any event.  The Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges stated.

 

“More than half of the budget of £1.1bn has already been spent for limited tangible benefit. Court closures and huge reductions in staff numbers with more to come have led to a stark deterioration in the service with no immediate sign of the promised technology being delivered”

“We question whether there has been meaningful (as opposed to token) consultation with all levels of the Judiciary. There is a feeling that whilst MOJ/HMCTS consult, they do not listen but proceed simply to implement the decisions taken by them before any consultation took place. Such an approach makes consultation meaningless.”

However the District Judges’ views on the impact of court closure offers, without doubt, the best view from those on the ground.

 

DISTRICT JUDGES ON COURT CLOSURE

  1. It is important to appreciate that different courts in different areas of the country are, in practice, affected in different ways.

 

  1. Pre-2011 Dudley County Court had staff, District Judges and a Circuit Judge all under one roof. After the court relocated to share the magistrates building, court staff were in one location (the contemporaneously closed Stourbridge County Court), a DJ in the same building as magistrates (5 miles away) and the CJ in Wolverhampton (10 miles away). To issue an emergency application to suspend a warrant for possession a litigant in person living in Dudley would have to travel to the office at Stourbridge, 5 miles back to Dudley for a hearing before the DJ, if the application was dismissed back to Stourbridge to issue an appellant’s notice then travel to Wolverhampton for the appeal to be heard by CJ (10 miles away). The cumulative time and cost of using public transport would be potentially prohibitive to a party on benefits where money was already tight as evidenced by his struggling to pay the rent. The position improved marginally in 2018 as the court staff are now accommodated in Dudley therefore there is no longer a need to travel to Stourbridge. Otherwise the position is the same. Although this relocation of the Court was not strictly speaking part of the Reform Programme as it predates the 2016 launch, it is indicative of the sorts of issues that can arise under the current programme.

 

  1. Similar problems were experienced in more rural areas such as Durham when Bishop Auckland closed. Litigants had to travel far greater distances using restricted but expensive public transport.

 

  1. In Weymouth which has a largely rural catchment area, consideration of closure was averted when it was realised that a litigant travelling by public transport from the town of Bridport could not get to the reassigned court Bournemouth without setting off the day before.

 

  1. When Rotherham closed, work was transferred to Sheffield. Housing Possession cases are heard for Sheffield in the morning and Rotherham in the afternoon. A DJ noticed that fewer Rotherham defendants were attending court than before. At his request local staff have analysed the attendance figures. These show that 41.3% of Sheffield tenants turned up compared to 30.3% of Rotherham tenants. Sheffield and Rotherham are only 7 miles apart and train journeys take less than 15 minutes. What might be viewed by some as a minor inconvenience of extra travel appears to have a disproportionate effect on court attendance. We would urge detailed academic studies be undertaken to evaluate this with samples from across the country.

 

  1. In Greater Manchester the courts at Oldham, Tameside, Altrincham, Bolton and Bury have been closed. Manchester CJFC now caters for all cases within a 30-mile radius. The geographical area now covered is huge, extending south to North Derbyshire and east to the border with Yorkshire. A defendant tenant unable to keep up with rental payments is hardly likely to be able to meet the cost of travel from areas such as Glossop, Rochdale or Bolton.

 

 

  1. Structural adaptations were undertaken to increase the number of courtrooms for the DJs. This has resulted in 22 courtrooms for 27 DJs. HMCTS sought to implement a new listing system, the effect of which would be to break the current link between each DJ and a particular courtroom. Opposition to the proposal was interpreted by HMCTS (and senior judiciary, who were largely unaffected by the proposal) as “territorialism” and an unwillingness to adapt. In reality, opposition was based primarily on a reasoned argument against the constant relocation of DJs (sometimes more than once in the course of a day) in a building in which courts are spread over 7 floors (3 of which are currently dedicated DJ floors) served by two lifts which are prone to regular breakdowns and even when working are unacceptably slow – serving as they do a 13 floor building.

 

  1. A compromise was reached but while HMCTS remain committed to introduction of a more flexible listing system this will not hold. As well as being an inefficient way of working this also risks further damage to judicial morale including increased absences through stress. The importance of tackling these risks to judicial health and morale have been recognised as a priority by the senior judiciary with the Lord Chief Justice and President of the Family Division both making public statements on this. There is already a chronic shortage of DJs and Deputies nationwide without exacerbating the position through risks to health or fed up office holders electing to retire early.

 

  1. There is a clear perception among the DJs at Manchester that waiting times for listing hearings has increased. Regrettably, no reliable data is available to support this.

 

  1. The problems at Manchester have exposed the flaws in the original HMCTS vision to close “satellite” courts in favour of a large regional hearing centre. The full impact needs to be the subject of independent and rigorous evaluation before there is any further attempt to apply this model elsewhere.