Many court closures in the past have not been based on the real travelling times it would take people to get to an alternative building, the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has admitted.
Speaking to MPs on the public accounts committee, Susan Acland-Hood said that “some years ago” officials looked instead at the “point to point” distance between courts rather than the actual travelling distance.
“Now we look at the postcodes of people attending the court and the real travelling times.”
Ms Acland-Hood said this meant studying “actual public transport journeys” and taking into account delays where they were known about.
Though HMCTS has shut half of the magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, she said 95.1% of people could still get to a court by 9am if they left home at 7.30am, as opposed to 96% before the closures.
Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown raised the case of Cirencester Magistrates’ Court, a town in his constituency, where closure means people having to travel to Gloucester – a journey of up to 25 miles.
He said a taxi fare to Gloucester for some of his constituents could be £40-£50, which they would have to pay up-front if they wanted to get to court, but they might not be able to afford.
Ms Acland-Hood promised to investigate how those on the lowest incomes could access money so they could attend court.
She said any more “large waves of closures” were unlikely and after next year she would expect closures to take place “one at a time”.
The session followed the National Audit Office’s recent update on the progress of the modernisation programme. This said that HMCTS has made “good progress” in transforming some services, but there were still “significant challenges” ahead. Last week, there was an evidence session with those representing practitioners and law centres.
Ms Acland-Hood also told the committee that the absence of an online court procedures bill from the Queen’s Speech did not mean that part of the reform programme would grind to a halt, but it would have a negative impact on the “scale, pace and ease” of changes.
She said she hoped it would not delay the reforms. In March this year HMCTS announced that the programme, which was extended from four to six years before it was signed off, would be delayed by a further year to 2023.
Sir Richard Heaton, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), said he believed the court reforms would be delivered on time.
Giving evidence alongside Ms Acland-Hood, he described it as a “difficult programme” which was “not going swimmingly but is broadly on track”.
Sir Richard said an interim report on the project would be published in 2021, with a final one in 2023. The first of two research reports on specific issues would be published in January next year.
Ms Acland-Hood added that independent academics were studying video hearings in civil and family cases, and flexible court opening times.
Richard Goodman, director of change at HMCTS, said international academic research on video hearings was conflicting.
He said he was “worried about the myths” generated by the court reforms. Mr Goodman said one of these was that efficiency would be improved “at the expense of the user”, another that videos would be used for “big trials” and also that users would get “lost in the mix”.
He added: “Our services provide real access for justice for people who never thought they could do it.”