This year, we’ve been celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and one of the key principles of that historic document was the guarantee of universal access to the justice of the courts. Until recently, that access has been maintained, with almost every substantial town in England and Wales having its own county and magistrates courts.
Over the last parliament, the government closed a significant number of courts across the country, and Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has just published a consultation paper suggesting the additional closure of:
- 57 magistrates courts
- 2 crown courts
- 19 county courts
- 9 combined courts
- 2 tribunal hearing centres
The consultation paper still maintains that “local” courts will be available to everyone, but the definition of local now appears to be anything up to an hour’s drive. This could mean a substantial trek even for those with access to a car, but the provision completely ignores the most vulnerable sections of the community. The state of public transport being what it is, people without a car may not have any way of reaching their “local” courts.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
The court system certainly needs reform. The technological revolution of the past few decades has passed the courts by, and if the system embraces IT and transfers some of its more antiquated practices online, there may no longer be the need for genuinely local courts everywhere.
The problem is that the government seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Those reforms haven’t happened, and many of the courts are dilapidated, with practices that barely seem to have reached the 20th century, let alone the 21st. At the moment, we seem to be heading towards the worst of all options.
Court Fees Rising
Earlier this year, a fee was introduced to bring a civil case to court. At the time, this was 5% of claims between £10,000 and £200,000, and a flat rate of £10,000 for a higher claim. The consultation paper proposes increasing the flat rate to £20,000, a 100% increase that’s likely to affect at least 5,000 claims every year.
Besides this, a 10% increase is proposed in the cost of writs, while other increases proposed in January are due to be put into action, including a £75 rise for a county court possession claim, a £50 rise for an application by consent and £100 rise for a contested claim.
These proposals, of course, are still at the consultation level, but the fact that the rises in fees from January’s consultation are going ahead in spite of most respondents opposing them suggests that the decisions may have already been made.
If the Ministry of Justice gets on with updating the infrastructure of the courts and making use of up-to-date technology, we may end up with a better system. Until that happens, though, it looks as if for many people Michael Gove’s axe may be severing rights guaranteed 800 years ago.