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Courts Service Estate

14th December 2010

Jonathan Djanogly announces the Government's response to the consultation on the future of magistrates courts and county courts in England and Wales.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to announce the Government's response to their consultation on Her Majesty's Courts Service estate. Thank you for allowing me to release details of the courts covered in the statement to Members in advance.

This statement will be of interest to many hon. Members and to many hard-working members of HMCS staff. It will also be of interest to the judiciary, both to professional judges and the very many magistrates who give freely of their time to serve their communities. My announcements pave the way for a better, more efficient and more modern justice system that has more efficient courts, better facilities, and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public at large.

The announcements complement the Department's wider plans to help and encourage people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies such as mediation where appropriate; to overhaul case management procedures and get rid of wasteful layers of bureaucracy; to move forward with technological innovations such as video links, which have the potential to revolutionise the way in which justice is delivered in our country; and to involve communities much more closely in the justice system, particularly through problem solving and restorative justice approaches.

On 23 June, my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, made a written statement announcing consultations on proposals to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts in England and Wales, and to merge some local justice areas. The consultation was clear that failures in the last decade to manage the Courts Service estate properly have led to a service that would be unsustainable at any time, let alone in the current financial circumstances.

It is unsustainable that in 2009-10, our 330 magistrates courts sat for less than two-thirds of their available time and that courtrooms in our 219 county courts sat on average for only 180 days a year. It is unacceptable that dozens of buildings never intended, and not fit, for the requirements of a modern court system are still being used. It is undesirable in the current financial position that the taxpayer continues to fund buildings that offer outdated and inadequate facilities to victims and witnesses.

I am grateful for the many contributions to the consultation. I understand the strength of feeling that is has generated, and I have listened to the many points made by respondents. Much has been said by Members about travel times to court. I can reassure the House that our plans will only very slightly reduce the percentage of the population able to access their nearest court by public transport in under an hour, from just under 90% to 85%. I also remind the House that very few of us actually attend court more than once or twice in our lives, and even fewer use public transport to get there. It is simply not good use of taxpayers' money to operate courts simply to shave minutes off a journey that many will never need to make.

Arguments were also made during the consultation about the potential erosion of local justice. I take that accusation extremely seriously, but the closures will not mean people losing access to local justice. In fact, I would suggest that they will mean quite the opposite-better local justice. They will mean the provision of a better, more efficient and more modern justice system with good facilities, efficient courts and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public.

Having taken all those points into consideration, the Government have decided to close 93 magistrates courts and 49 county courts. Of those county courts, however, 10 will remain open for hearings under the control of other local county courts. We will also retain 10 magistrates courts and five county courts on which we consulted, and I will list them. Magistrates courts will be retained at Abergavenny, Harlow, Kettering, Newbury, Newton Abbot, Skipton, Spalding, Stroud, Waltham Forest and Worksop. County courts will be retained at Barnsley, Bury, Llangefni, the Mayor's and City of London, and Skipton.

It is estimated that those measures will save £41.5 million during the spending review period, excluding closure costs, and bring in £38.5 million in receipts from the sale of assets. In addition, I expect substantial cost avoidance through avoided maintenance costs for closed courts and better targeting of resources for the Courts Service, as well as savings for the National Offender Management Service and the Crown Prosecution Service. Copies of all the relevant documents, and of the decisions on local justice area mergers and counter services, have been placed in the House Library.

This is the start of an important programme of reform for the Courts Service. I am determined to develop a proper, modern Courts Service and estate that does our communities proud. We are taking the difficult action on court closures that the last Government failed to take, so that we can raise the quality of the courts estate significantly across the board.

With that in mind, I can announce today that £22 million of capital will be reinvested to improve and modernise the courts to which work will be transferred. Within that are three particularly large projects: in London at Camberwell Green magistrates court, in Staffordshire at Newcastle-under-Lyme magistrates court and in Wales at Prestatyn magistrates court. There are also smaller schemes to make some receiving courts better. They include additional interview rooms and a secure dock at Huddersfield magistrates court and the conversion of rooms at Watford magistrates court to provide additional staff accommodation and security. In the next spending period, new courts will open in Chelmsford, Colchester and Westminster, and Woolwich Crown court will be extended. We will make further announcements on new court building schemes early in the new year.

We have, however, cancelled existing plans for a new magistrates court in Liverpool, because the scheme that was proposed is unaffordable, but I will investigate more affordable options to provide suitable accommodation for magistrates court work in Liverpool.

Our courts are failing fully to embrace technological advances that have the potential to revolutionise the way in which justice is delivered in our country. There is much that can be done. Court-to-prison video links provide a much more efficient way of doing things, but they are used in too few cases. In future, we want victims and witnesses, when appropriate, to be able to give evidence in trials by live video link from a more convenient location.

We will begin by testing the principle of police officers giving evidence in summary trials by live video link from the police station. We expect that that will save the police time and money and enable more officers to spend more time out on patrol. We intend to test the idea in London in January, and in at least one other area soon afterwards, with the first cases likely to be heard in that way before the end of March. If successful, that could pave the way for civilian and expert witnesses to give evidence from a police station or other, more convenient locations, rather than having to travel to court.

We also want to give communities a greater say in how justice is administered in their areas. Proposals for problem solving and restorative justice were included in my Department's sentencing and rehabilitation Green Paper, published last week. We will consult on the use of neighbourhood justice panels to deal with low-level cases, empowering people to develop their own solutions to local problems and increasing community confidence.

In summary, this announcement forms an important part of my Department's clear vision for a step change in our justice system-one that protects communities from crime and works for, rather than against, the most important people in the system: the victims and witnesses. I commend the statement to the House.

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