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Half of magistrates' courts closed since 2010

'Have court, will travel' in justice efficiency exercise

Police, defendants, witnesses, lawyers and JPs face up to six-hour return journeys to access local justice in the wake of wholesale closure of courts in the last decade.

Half of all magistrates' courts in England and Wales have shut since 2010, new figures reveal.

Of 323 magistrates' courts, 162 stopped operating between 2010 and 2018, according to data published by the House of Commons library.

The closures come as part of a series of reforms in HM Courts & Tribunals Service aiming to "improve access to justice by both modernising the court and tribunal estate and by making greater use of technology".

The Ministry of Justice efficiency exercise is designed to generate funds for a £1.2 billion digital modernisation programme, which has come under fire following a meltdown of court computer systems last week.

Earlier this month the Commons’ Justice Select Committee launched an inquiry into the implications of the reforms on access to justice.

Among questions it is addressing are the impact of closures, reductions in staffing and how far online systems and video hearings can be “a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.

Some 150 constituencies contained a magistrates' court which closed over the period, with the south east of England seeing the most closures – 25.

East Berkshire Magistrates' Court, which was in Prime Minister Theresa May's constituency, Maidenhead, is the latest to be “no longer in service”.

In total, since 2010, more than 250 hearing centres have ceased operating.

So far £223 million has been raised by sales. But Treasury funding for the courts digital programme stipulates that a third must be raised by selling courthouses.

Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said: "The closure of any court is not taken lightly – it only happens following full public consultation and when communities have reasonable access to alternative courts.

"We are reinvesting every penny raised from selling these underused buildings into modernising the justice system to provide swifter and easier access to justice for all."

The modernisation programme will see an increase in the use of "virtual hearings" in criminal cases, with judges and magistrates dealing with defendants from a police station or prison using a video link.

Accused individuals will be able to enter pleas online, removing the need for pre-trial hearings, while vulnerable witnesses will be allowed to give pre-recorded evidence rather than appear in court.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service has confirmed it is considering whether to pay for taxis to ferry defendants and witnesses from the most remote parts of the country to hearings.

The distance model developed by the courts’ service requires that 95 per cent of the population should be able to travel to court from their homes by public transport leaving at 7.30am and arriving by 9.30am.

It adds that 98 per cent of the population should be able to reach court by 10.30am.

So, in theory there is a six-hour return window of travel for justice participants.