The role of the magistracy Contents

5Magistrates’ court closures

History and rationale of the court closure programme

84.Following on from the closure of 93 magistrates’ courts under the Court Estate Reform Programme of 2010–2014, the Government announced in July 2015 that it was consulting on further court closures. The proposed closures—which included 57 magistrates’ courts—were largely justified on the basis of court utilisation rates. For magistrates’ courts, average utilisation rates of 47% were recorded in 2014/15 for the courts proposed for closure, a drop of 8% compared to the previous year. The consultation document231 also explained the need to fund the HMCTS reform programme which aimed to deliver an improved estate and the modernisation of working practices through the use of digital technology. Giving evidence to us the day after this announcement, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, acknowledged that the “biggest problem” he faced was that the Ministry of Justice was an unprotected department; in this context, court closures would need to make a contribution to reducing the departmental deficit.232

85.Responding to the consultation on 11 February 2016,233 the Government stated that 86 court and tribunal buildings in England and Wales would close, of which half (43) would be magistrates’ courts. The response indicated that work would be transferred from ‘surplus sites’ to existing courts and tribunals, creating multifunctional court spaces in some areas, and that—where appropriate—hearings could be held in suitable civic (or other) buildings. The intention was to close all scheduled courts within the following two years; the proposed schedule of court closures published alongside the response was described as ‘indicative’, and a detailed implementation plan would be developed for each closure, looking at alternative provision of services. The Government stated that work was under way to pilot the use of non-court buildings for court hearings and would “make sure that the security of the judiciary, staff [and] users is assessed as part of this process and the provision of appropriate ICT facilities will also be carefully considered and evaluated.”

86.When giving evidence to us in July 2015, the then Secretary of State had told us that one of the tests for deciding whether a court should be closed would be whether the travel time to an alternative court would be less than an hour.234 The table below summarises the information given in the Government’s subsequent consultation response on the impact of the intended closures on travel times to the nearest magistrates’ court.

Mode of travel

Before changes are implemented

After changes are implemented

Travel times to nearest magistrates’ court

0–60 minutes

0–120 minutes

0–60 minutes

0–120 minutes

Access by car





Access by public transport





This table indicates an anticipated reduction of 8% in the proportion of the population who are able to travel to their nearest magistrates’ court within an hour by public transport—from 82% down to 74%.

Impact of court closures on magistrates and court users

87.Some witnesses identified potential advantages of rationalising the courts estate. For example, Leicestershire Advisory Committee said that closures had led to a larger, single bench which was now beginning to feel more cohesive.235 Nicola Silverleaf JP commented that, as a result of court mergers, it had been possible to set up specialised domestic violence courts.236 Liz Harrison JP recognised the efficiency gains from having fewer, larger courts and said that there was a view within her bench that, if people could travel to their nearest large town for a night out or for a hospital appointment, they should also be able to travel to court.237

88.However, we received substantially more evidence identifying adverse impacts on court users and magistrates caused by court closures that had taken place or were expected to happen in future. Some witnesses highlighted the possibility of eroding the principle of local justice and diluting magistrates’ local knowledge.238 Penelope Gibbs from Transform Justice explained her own concerns as follows:

Inevitably, if you close a lot of courts, the likelihood of the magistrate sitting on a particular case knowing the area where a particular crime took place—even the roads, the shops and so on—is limited. In that sense, it threatens local justice.239

Cleveland and County Durham and Darlington Judicial Business Group drew attention to the potential impact of court closures on magistrates’ morale,240 while others pointed out that longer travel distances might deter some people from applying to be magistrates, or might make it difficult for sitting magistrates to deal with a full range of cases because of the trend towards centralising particular types of work in the remaining courts.241 Sheena Jowett JP explained how court closures had increased her own travel times in rural Wales:

My local justice area is Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire… … The two courthouses within the LJA are 72 miles apart, so the LJA goes south and north of them. Travelling for magistrates between those two courthouses, without a dual carriageway and with plenty of tractors en route, can be hugely challenging. If I am due to sit in Aberystwyth, for instance, I have to allow two hours’ travelling there. 242

89.A number of submissions also highlighted the detrimental impact of court closures on court users, particularly on vulnerable defendants and those with chaotic lives, taking into account that public transport services may themselves be subject to future modifications that extend journey times.243 Dr Jenifer Harding JP reminded us that travel times in urban areas can also be significantly increased by court closures. In her area, with very high deprivation levels, 34% of the population do not have access to a car; court closures, she said, would mean people—many with school age children—having to leave home before 8 o’clock in the morning to get to court.244 Corby Magistrates’ Bench reported an increase in participants failing to attend court and thought that proper consideration should be given to the risk of this being exacerbated by court closures.245 In relation to young offenders, the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales argued that “the successful operation of youth courts is underpinned by strong local partnership working between the court and YOTs [Youth Offending Teams]” and that court closures threatened to undermine these partnerships.246 Dominic Goble JP also expressed concern about the impact of closures on youth justice, pointing out that:

the majority of children who find themselves in Youth Court are from what used to be known as ‘troubled families’ … … Local transport links for schooling, working or court hearings are all a challenge. Indeed, travelling across some rural areas by public transport is difficult at the best of times.247

90.At each of our three oral evidence sessions, we asked magistrate witnesses to give their views about the idea of providing temporary court facilities in alternative venues such as civic buildings—so-called ‘pop-up courts’. There were no objections in principle to this approach. For example, Luke Rigg JP told us:

We want to get the facts, making it not necessarily easy, but as comfortable as possible for witnesses and defendants to say what they need to say. If that means leaving a court building and going to some other kind of civic building, I am open to that.248

91.However, witnesses thought that certain risks were involved in using alternative venues, arising in particular from the lack of a secure dock. While expressing support for the principle of occasional courts, the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum highlighted the need for appropriate security (as well as digital support) and argued that the model should be piloted before conventional courthouses were closed. The Forum’s Executive Chair, Jo King JP, observed that it is “not just in the most serious cases … .that we sometimes have problems with security; sometimes something that seems as straightforward as council tax can be very emotive. Sometimes you get people responding in ways that you do not anticipate …”249 Sheena Jowett JP thought that magistrates would be open to discussing this approach with HMCTS but expressed regret that “when the courts were closed there had not been a little bit of foresight about the issue of security and alternative venues.”250 Christine Holmes JP suggested that in practice the types of cases in these venues would be severely restricted.251

92.We have not taken evidence on the decision announced in the recent joint statement252 to increase flexibility in case listing by reforming Local Justice Areas, but we consider it possible that a more flexible approach might also assist magistrates whose nearest court lies outside the Local Justice Area where they normally sit. This is a question to which we may return in future.

93.We welcome the Ministry of Justice’s commitment to developing a detailed implementation plan for each proposed magistrates’ court closure, and in particular its willingness to look at alternative provision of services. In determining the location of alternative venues, we recommend that the Ministry ensure that at least 90% of magistrates’ court users can reach the nearest venue by public transport within one hour.

94.Use of alternative venues has assumed a key role in the Ministry’s court estate strategy, so it is regrettable that inadequate forethought has been given to the security implications of holding court sessions in buildings that are not equipped with a secure dock. We recommend that this matter be given urgent consideration, in consultation with magistrates, District Judges and court staff, to identify low-cost practical solutions to potential security risks.

Digital infrastructure

95.The Ministry of Justice’s submission confirmed that, through the Spending Review, it had secured £700 million to invest in the modernisation of the criminal courts. Planned developments such as virtual hearings along with digital access to case papers and evidence displayed on courtroom screens would allow magistrates “to spend less time on case administration and focus on dealing with the disputed matters, trials and sentencing.”253 In his oral evidence, Mr Vara explained to us that the investment would “make sure that we have a first-rate, world-class courts and tribunals service.” Of the £700 million, some £300 million would be spent on a digitised Common Platform system involving the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts “so that we make much less use of paper, with the delays, lost files and all that that entails”.254 He also emphasised his Department’s commitment to establishing video links; at present, people have to go to court and “hang around and wait in an environment that can be oppressing.” Modern technology, he told us, would allow them to “go to a nearby place—it could be a police station, the council offices or somewhere else—where they can book a particular time and give evidence by video link”.255 Similar advantages were recognised by the Crown Prosecution Service, although it emphasised that the ‘virtual court’ approach would be dependent on courts being fully equipped with the necessary technology.256

96.The evidence we received from magistrates suggested that they were equally enthusiastic about the benefits of modern technology. The Chair of Shropshire Bench vividly illustrated this point: “My briefcase with paper copies of the guidelines and bench books weighs 8 kilograms, compare that to the weight of an iPad with software containing all of that information.”257 Northern Derbyshire Bench thought that digitalisation would make it possible to transfer cases across existing boundaries so that “all court users, not just defendants, could attend their nearest court.”258 However, there was some doubt as to whether the digital infrastructure was in fact ready to replace physical courts259 and an unfavourable comparison was made with the Government’s ill-fated LIBRA project.260 The National Bench Chairmen’s Forum expressed concern about the delays in implementation and the performance of some digital programmes, arguing that “the importance of adequate investment in both the initial development of the programmes and their subsequent support and on-going enhancements cannot be overstated.”261 Richard Goold JP told us that, although tablets were in use in his area, the internet bandwidth was not enough to use them; as a result, magistrates still brought their own devices to court so they could access the sentencing guidelines. He went on to say:

We must be able to use technology far better, whether it is video links or sharing documents, and not have to pass antecedents around that are six months out of date and then have to put a case to get the police liaison officer to print a new one.262

97.Others highlighted the need for magistrates’ skills to match developments in technology. Central London Bench thought that digital skills were now essential for magistrates and suggested that “willingness to engage with this technology would also seem an appropriate requirement/competence for appraisal and performance review.”263 The importance of special communication skills when dealing with people who appear in court by video link was emphasised by Norfolk Bench264 and, in relation to children and young people, by the Youth Justice Board.265

98.We commend the Government’s commitment to strengthening and updating the digital infrastructure in the magistrates’ courts, but conclude that some of its aspirations have been undermined by the difficulties in delivery of changes on the ground. We recommend that full access to physical courts, including alternative venues, be maintained for the time being until facilities such as video links are fully operational. We also recommend that provision be made for upgrading inadequate video links and internet connections for courts with insufficient bandwidth.

99.We further recommend that, in the context of the comprehensive review of magistrates’ training that we have proposed, consideration be given to additional training needs created by increasing reliance on new technology, including particular communication skills required when dealing with defendants, victims and witnesses by video link.

238 For example, Riley Smith [MAG0040, paragraph 6]; Chris Taylor JP [MAG0005, paragraph 2]; Bedfordshire Magistrates Association [MAG0025]; Professor Mike Hough and Professor Julian Roberts [MAG0081, paragraph 2]

241 North East Bench Chairs Forum [MAG0008]; Lincolnshire County Magistrates’ Bench [MAG000030]; Dr Peter Reed JP [MAG0002]; Q27

243 For example, Coventry and Warwickshire Magistrates Association [MAG0033]; Executive Committee, Powys and Herefordshire Magistrates Association [MAG0043]; David Sanderson JP [MAG0006]

253 MAG0050, paragraphs 4, 34 and 35

257 MAG0034, paragraph 6.3

259 For example, Christine Holmes [Q180], Jacqueline Alexander JP [MAG0086 , paragraph 3]

260 Shropshire Bench [MAG0034]. The LIBRA project was designed to provide a national standard IT system for magistrates’ courts; the contract was procured by the Government in 1998 and was widely criticised for poor competition and lack of financial control.

261 MAG0063, paragraph 43

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

17 October 2016