Do rural communities face a 'justice desert'?

What does delivering a proportionate and effective justice system mean for rural communities? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Since the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 to the creation of the Crown Court in the 1970s, each generation has updated or reformed the justice system. Meeting the needs of judges, magistrates, legal professionals, witnesses, victims, defendants, individual citizens and businesses is at the heart of the Government’s latest reforms for Courts. But what does delivering a proportionate and effective justice system mean for rural communities? Jessica Sellick investigates.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is the body responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts in England and Wales. An executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Royal Courts of Justice, HMCTS spends around £1.7 billion a year on staff, judiciary and estates.

The Court estate currently comprises 460 court and tribunal buildings – made up of freehold, leasehold and causal hire arrangements; with buildings ranging from the historic and listed through to rented floors in modern office blocks. The estate also includes some administrative and support buildings inherited in 2011 when the HMCTS was formed.

Maintenance of this estate costs taxpayers approximately £500 million a year. Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice has sought to provide better access to justice by reducing the cost of the estate and reinvesting the savings; and has been aiming (through consultation) to close 1 in 4 Magistrates’ and County Courts in England and Wales.

In October 2016, HMCTS announced a decision to close 86 courts and tribunals – with a further 22 closures taking place but with changes to the original proposals. In practice this means, for example, from January 2017 in North Lincolnshire Council court cases will be dealt with at Grimsby Magistrates’ Court rather than at Scunthorpe.

This announcement comes on top of a number of Courts that have already closed since 2011: with cases in Skegness and Spalding now heard in Boston and Lincoln; the closure of Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft Magistrates’ Courts leaves Suffolk with just one Court in Ipswich; and Blandford and Wimborne in Dorset.

These closures come at the same time as ‘Transforming Our Justice System’, a programme of reform launched in September 2016 by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals. The programme calls for a single online system for starting and managing cases across the criminal, civil, family and tribunal jurisdictions – which will see the introduction of electronic document and case management systems to replace the paper filing systems of today.

In future some cases might be handled entirely online or virtually rather than in a physical court room. “As the courts and tribunals are modernised we will need fewer buildings…attending hearings in person will only be needed where there is no other alternative; parties will be able to engage virtually or online rather than have to take time to attend hearings in person.

We currently have over 400 court and tribunal buildings, many of them old, small, inefficient, yet expensive to maintain.” It is expected the sale of defunct Court buildings will go towards “investment in fewer, more modern buildings that can better serve people’s needs”, with the Government committing £700 million over the next 4 years to update the estate and install modern IT systems.

Evidence from HMCTS suggests that in 2014-2015 hearing rooms within the HMCTS estate were significantly under-utilised: 71% in crown courts, 53% in county courts and 47% in magistrates’ courts. HMCTS believes that as the judicial system adopts digital ways of working and reduces the requirement on the part of users to physically attend hearings, the need for court rooms will diminish.

What does this transformation and the Government’s agenda of delivering a courts and tribunal system that is “just, proportionate and accessible to everyone” actually mean for rural communities? I offer four points.

First, Courts that have closed or earmarked for closure will mean rural residents will have to travel further to access justice services.

The charity ‘Transform Justice’ quotes Simon Reevell, former MP for Dewsbury, who wrote “imagine someone who lives in Wensleydale in rural North Yorkshire or any of the hundreds of similar rural areas in England and Wales. Should he find himself accused of a criminal offence he will appear before the magistrates in Northallerton.

Or at least he will try. The first bus leaves at 9.45am and doesn’t arrive until just short of midday meaning that even a ‘not before 12’ marking wouldn’t help and the case would have to be marked ‘not before 2’. It would also have to finish in time for the 3.35pm bus, otherwise it’s an overnight stay in Bedale.”

When/if the Courts move to an online system, some rural communities may struggle with the broadband infrastructure available to be able to access the service. And there may be no overlap between the physical Court building closing and a fully operational online system being available.

In its annual report 2014-2015, HMCTS described how a lack of digital services often leads people travelling to its buildings to complete “a simple process” or needing to arrange face-to-face meetings for “basic guidance”. HMCTS describes its back end systems as “often been designed in silos, rather than developed in a consistent approach…user experience is inconsistent and unnecessarily confusing, particularly for our vulnerable users.”

While online solutions including telephone and video hearings could make access to justice easier and reduce the need for journeys to and from Court, closing physical buildings and fully digitising Courts have implications for rural communities.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice, recognises in some areas of England and Wales with poor transport links (e.g. Devon, Cumbria, and Carmarthenshire) there is a pressing need for a Court service: “there are two ways principally of doing this…Firstly, in one location, provide a video link to a court centre where you can go into a booth in a local town and give evidence. The alternative is to say there is a town hall or suitable place… We’ll come and have an occasional court there. Both are feasible.”

Both of these options require digital infrastructure and digital skills. Despite the Government wanting to deliver broadband to 95% of the UK by December 2017, there will still be ‘not spots’ and where broadband is available in some areas it may not be reliable enough for individual citizens to do online transactions with the court.

The Civil Justice Council (CJC) has highlighted the scale of digital exclusion, and the Government’s estimate that 18% of the population are ‘digitally excluded’ –i.e., those who cannot or choose not to access IT facilities or lack basic skills or confidence.”

The CJC is calling on HMCTS to run a number of pilots to check the online system and the assisted digital service that needs to accompany it to help the digitally excluded.

The CJC believes that while the digital exclusion estimate of 18% may be an accurate for the population as a whole, the figure rises in terms of court users where a disproportionately higher number of people on low incomes, older people and people for whom English is not their first language are trying to navigate their way through the judicial system.

This complicates HMCTS’s assessment of how to plan a level of service that will meet these diverse needs. Furthermore, with the scale and pace of Court closures in train it is unlikely an online/virtual system will be fully in place to replace the current paper system.

For me, these reforms underline a need to think creatively in the face of budget reductions and think through the relationship between short term necessity [Court closures] and longer term planning [virtual Court system].

Secondly, these reforms raise issues around local governance and decision making.

Prior to 2003 Magistrates’ Courts were owned by Local Authorities and managed by Local Magistrates’ Courts Committees. Under this system, local magistrates managed the budget, hired staff and decided on Court closures. With the centralisation of Court services and formation of the HMCTS this local administration and governance has been removed.

Transform Justice suggests that while all Court closures have been open to consultation, “all closures have been overwhelmingly opposed”, but that they know of very few courts that have been spared. “Who will oppose new court closures knowing how unsuccessful previous campaigns have been?”

Thirdly, what opportunities are there for local stakeholders to work with HMCTS in disposal of Court assets and/or in supporting Courts to remain open? 

How can HMCTS work with local stakeholders to think about using these defunct buildings and use existing ones differently?

In response to a Freedom of Information request the Ministry of Justice published a list of Court buildings disposed of since May 2010 on the open market and through alternative routes and the receipts generated.

While some buildings were subject to a special purchase sale (e.g. Denbigh Magistrates Court to Denbigh Town Council; Hemel Hempstead Magistrates' Court to Dacorum Borough Council or Woking Magistrates' Court to Surrey County Council), the majority were sold on the open market.

Here the receipt generated varies from £59,000 for Newport Magistrates’ Court to £8,525,000 for Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court.

Are there are opportunities to think about integration with other public services – and how we work together to “reduce surplus capacity” and keep our Courts open? Where closure takes place are there other parts of the public estate that could be used to host a virtual (video link) to a Court or occasional or mobile Court hearings? As long as the building has two exits and security in place it could host a Court.

Fourthly and finally, are there opportunities to share rural ideas and good practice with other countries? 

In the United States, for example, steps are being taken to keep rural Courts open and support them as part of a localised approach to judiciary.

The Rural Courts Improvement Network (RCIN) is an initiative between the Justice Management Institute (JMI), the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since 2008, RCIN has sought to strengthen the ability of state court systems and rural court leaders to improve court operations in rural areas. The RCIN is seeking to address six areas of need for rural courts: 1. Enhanced technology, 2. Improved procedures and practices to assist self-represented litigants, 3. Overcoming language barriers such as greater access to qualified interpreters, 4. Greater availability of mental health treatment services, 5. Modernisation of court facilities, and 6. Upgrading defence services.

Despite the RCIN, providing a rural court service in the United States remains challenging. Residents in Arkansas, for example, have 0.72 lawyers per 100,000 residents compared to a national average of 4.11 lawyers per 100,000. Residents in one county, Cleveland, have no lawyers at all.

The state government is now working with two law schools and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission to jointly run programmes to increase the presence of lawyers in the state – with measures including a judicial clerkship programme to benefit circuit judges and courts in rural areas, a fellowship programme for legal aid attorneys and a distance incubator programme to demonstrate the skills needed to successfully establish practices in rural counties.

Providing a full range of Court services in rural areas in England and Wales remains a challenge, especially going forward in view of budgets and resources available and reforms from Government. These effects are compounded in rural areas because of obstacles linked to physical distance, technology and transport.

Having an accessible Court system for rural communities means thinking carefully about how we build our judicial systems [online and physical] around rural users; and ensuring that the systems we develop provides rural residents with accessible and high quality Court services. For me, this takes us beyond rural ‘access’ to Courts, ‘need’ or some kind of rural special pleading to issues around fairness, expectations, collaborations and sustainability.

The term “justice desert” has been taken from an article which first appeared in The Independent.

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Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current public services work includes research for the NHS on workforce recruitment and retention in rural areas.

Jessica produces evidence bases for Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and the governing bodies of designated landscapes. She can be contacted by email or telephone 01522 521211. Website: Twitter: @RoseRegen.


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