On 23 June 2015, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice announced his intention to work with the judiciary to reform the courts in England and Wales. The stated aim of the reform is to create a modern and efficient justice system which takes into account developments in technology. This process has begun with this consultation on the closure of 91 courts across the country, which includes suggestions of possible broader reform.
JUSTICE welcomes that attention is being paid to the configuration of the court estate. The estate is a valuable, as well as an expensive part of our justice system. Courts and tribunals have a critical practical as well as symbolic role in the justice system and in civic life more broadly. However, as is acknowledged in the Consultation Paper, many of our courts are not fit for that purpose and constitute not only a drain on public funds, but an impediment to access to justice. We agree that in certain cases, the closure or consolidation of court buildings may benefit the justice system as a whole.
JUSTICE is concerned that the current court closures be informed not just by how courts are used at the moment, but also how judicial processes are likely to develop in the next five to ten years and beyond, and what ‘courts’ will be needed to facilitate these processes. Key criterion in this regard should be flexibility of space, both in terms of space and design and also the contracts related to their operation. In this regard, the ability to use the court estate flexibly in the future – and to facilitate access to justice and fair trial regardless of the fluctuating investment in the justice system – will be key.
In light of the longer-term implications of the proposals contained in the Consultation Paper, JUSTICE has established a Working Party of its membership to consider: ‘What is a court?’ chaired by Alexandra Marks. This group will consider the role of courts in the delivery of justice, and the principles which must guide reconfiguration of the court estate. The Working Party will seek inspiration from comparative jurisdictions, and aim to provide a holistic perspective on reform. This Consultation response will be supplemented by the Working Party report, though nothing in this response should be taken as the views of the group. The group will report in March 2016 and we hope that its findings will be valuable to the on-going reform process.