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12 October 2015

Law Society says court closures will inhibit access to justice

The Law Society has responded to a Ministry of Justice consultation on proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals, which is one fifth of courts and tribunals across England and Wales, and integrate or merge 31 more, reports Family Law Week.

The response, says the Law Society, reflects solicitors' views on the likely adverse impact of the proposed closures on local communities, the justice system and the legal profession.

In summary, the concerns are:

  • Access to justice: a key aspect of access to justice is being able to go to a local court without incurring unreasonable expense. Almost all of the proposed closures would result in court users travelling further, at greater cost.
  • Use of technology: the Society agrees that a modernised court service and efficient use of technology would benefit all court users. However, these facilities are not yet in place across all courts nor in the proposed alternatives.
  • Legal aid tenders: the Society is concerned that the court closures would lead to its members being financially unable to meet the requirements of the legal aid tenders through no fault of their own. This could leave people who qualify for legal aid unable to access legal advice in some areas.
  • Methodology: neither the consultation paper nor the impact assessment sets out the criteria used to identify the courts and tribunals proposed for closure or consolidation. Law Society members also pointed out a worrying number of factual errors in the consultation document. Details of these are given in the full response.

Law Society President Jonathan Smithers commented:
"A majority of these proposed court closures will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court, and the closures will more adversely affect people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.
"Combined with the further planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the proposed closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
"No matter who you are, no matter where you live, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access legal advice and the justice system."
The Law Society has produced an interactive map that shows the impact the proposed closures would have on local people, based on information from solicitors who serve their local communities.

The full response and interactive map can be accessed here.