Court closures have weakened access to justice in England and Wales – a solution must be found fast
To mark Justice Week 2022, the Bar Council of England and Wales has highlighted the number of court closures and is calling for greater investment to help solve the problem.
The Bar Council revealed this week that 239 courts in England and Wales have closed in the last 12 years.
With access to justice now a postcode lottery, it is crucial that our politicians agree to sustainable investment to repair the justice system.
This means rebuilding the crumbling court estate, appointing more judges in all jurisdictions and widening access to legal aid.
Justice Week 2022, which ends today (Friday, 24 June), has seen the Bar Council highlight the need for urgent new funding.
Working closely with The Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), we have been engaging with cross-party parliamentarians – and other key stakeholders – so we can help improve the justice system and ensure it is efficient and fair.
The current picture is laid bare in an interactive map released by the Bar Council this week. The ‘Access to Justice dashboard’, available on the Bar Council website, includes information on the number of active and closed courts, legal aid barristers, and legal aid providers.
For example, the dashboard shows that a total of 239 courts have been shut down since 2010.
There is now no court in 373 parliamentary constituencies and 155 council areas, compared with 200 constituencies and 178 council areas which still have one.
Local courts matter and local justice matters
There is an increasing demand for access to local public services, including access to justice, but the closure of hundreds of courts over the last decade means that people must travel further and for longer, and waiting lists and backlogs have grown.
Access to justice and timely court hearings are paramount in a legal culture where everyone’s rights are respected and enforced.
If people cannot access justice quickly and efficiently, they will lose confidence that the law will help them resolve family, property and financial disputes.
We urgently need a political commitment to fund capacity across the justice system.
It was therefore encouraging to see a range of MPs and peers attending Monday’s launch event for Justice Week.
Sponsored by Lord Hunt of Wirral, the parliamentary reception in the House of Lords featured speeches from Sir Bob Neill MP (Chair of the Commons Justice Committee), Professor Chris Bones (Chair of CILEX), I. Stephanie Boyce (President of The Law Society) and Mark Fenhalls QC (Chair of the Bar Council).
The gathering was a key opportunity to raise awareness and promote the importance of access to justice, while discussing the challenges so starkly showcased in the Bar Council’s new dashboard.
But it also provided a welcome chance to celebrate the growing diversity of the legal professions and hail the continued status of the sector as an economic powerhouse.
Positive discussions were held on Wednesday, too, when barristers joined representatives from other parts of the legal system for a workshop exploring four themes – the courts; legal aid; law reform; and challenges facing the Bar.
The conclusions will now help to inform a report on improving access to justice, and they will also direct the Bar Council’s long-term policies.
As far as access to justice is concerned, it is likely we already have some sense of what success would look like.
Real success would require the reversal of the cuts inflicted on the justice system over the last decade and would help deliver justice for everyone in every part of England and Wales.
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