£1billion courts modernisation project and what it means for local centres

Magistrates' Court.
Magistrates' Court.

My local county court has closed recently and I have read in the papers that lots of other courts are also closing. Why is this happening?

Some time ago the government introduced a new approach to cases dealt with by the county court. The system used to be that many geographical areas had their own designated county court.

This was changed so that there is now instead a nationally run system and the local courts referred to above are called instead “hearing centres”. So it is probably your hearing centre that has shut down.

The government via the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) wants to mak many changes to the system by which justice is delivered.

These changes are part of a £1billion modernisation project. There is to be a move to “virtual courts” so that cases are dealt with online without witnesses giving evidence.

The closure of local courts is to lead to larger justice centres so that – for example – magistrates’ courts and county courts and perhaps other courts and tribunals can all be housed under the same roof. There is talk of simplification of rules etc.

At the same time as the above, the government wishes the courts system to be as self-financing as possible – this has led for example to the courts making a £100 million surplus (or profit) on fees for court cases due to the fact that such court fees have increased in cost hugely – of course it makes it very difficult to start or to defend a court case if you don’t have the money for the fees.

There is some considerable concern in many quarters about this modernisation programme.

Many worry about access to justice – often users of the court service are vulnerable and not well off; getting to locations at distance from where they live is not necessarily easy.

There is scepticism also about how soon new IT systems will be ready – these are integral to the modernisation push. Experience in other public expenditure areas concerning IT projects (the NHS for instance) does not give cause for optimism.

Some MPs are among the sceptics. The justice committee of the House of Commons has announced an inquiry into how the modernisation programme is going.

This will be the second time in a year that officials from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) will be summoned to Parliament to explain how things are going.

£1billion for this modernisation is a lot of money. It is dwarfed however by the amount of money that has been slashed in recent years from the Justice budget.

The overall costs to the nation of having a justice system that once was the envy of the world are tiny as a percentage of what Government spends.

Some feel that what is going on is a hangover from the “austerity” politics of the last administration and that there will be a worrying dumbing down of our justice system unless any changes are very carefully effected. Crucially those with such concerns believe that consultation must be very thorough. MPs are to question HMCTS staff carefully about this and other aspects of the position.

Ben Hoare Bell LLP is an award winning firm of solicitors with offices across the North East. To speak to a solicitor please phone 0191 565 3112 or email advice@benhoarebell.co.uk. Visit www.benhoarebell.co.uk for further information.