There will not be another round of court closures for the time being, but this may change as technology takes hold, justice secretary David Gauke said yesterday.
Mr Gauke was speaking to MPs on the justice select committee, which also heard senior judges vent their frustration at criticisms of the government’s court modernisation programme.
The justice secretary – who seems likely to leave his post if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister – said another round of closures “was not imminent”, but added that the government would “take into account that people would make greater use of technology” in the future, meaning that they did not need to be physically present.
He said the Ministry of Justice had carried out some “interesting research” on the impact of the closures on the ability of people to get to a court by public transport within the recently extended 7.30am-7.30pm time slot.
Mr Gauke said researchers found that there was only a “very, very marginal difference” in what would have been the case in 2010 and what was the case now.
He said there should be a balance between the government’s “strong desire” that people should be able to attend court physically and the need to use resources effectively.
Earlier Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of the Court and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), said the number of people accessing face-to-face help with online services through the ‘assisted digital’ scheme had risen from 44 to 98.
Richard Goodman, change director at HMCTS, said independent evaluation of the court reforms was taking place, and there would be an interim report in the summer of 2021, followed by a final report in 2023/4.
He said it would cover access to justice, any impact on criminal sentencing, and the cost to users, including travel costs.
The justice committee earlier heard evidence on the access to justice implications of the court reforms from some of the leading judges in the land.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, said he “profoundly” disagreed that insufficient consideration had been given to access to justice at all stages of the court reform process.
He said he found some of the criticisms of court reforms “quite frustrating”, particularly that the reform process was “too slow”.
The Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, added: “We don’t see that there will be any diminution in public access at all.”
He said a greater risk would be that people who could not use digital services would be disadvantaged by having to use the old paper system.
“People talk about an online court. There is not and never will be an online court as such.” He said that instead digital processes were being introduced at various stages in the litigation process.
Sir Terence said that, since March 2018, over 70,000 money claims under £10,000 had been voluntarily processed online and that if any justification for the reforms based on access to justice was needed, this was it.
Sir Ernest Ryder, the senior president of tribunals, said he disagreed that there should be more parliamentary scrutiny of the court reforms.
“If you put in any more scrutiny, you would risk very inconsistent and overbearing pressure on those who have to operationally run the court reforms.
“They’re spending a huge amount of time on scrutiny already.”