The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has announced the closure of 86 courts and tribunals across England and Wales. These closures threaten people's access to justice in towns and rural areas, and the jobs of thousands of workers. The civil service trade union PCS is opposing the closures, alongside MPs, solicitors' firms, magistrates and the Citizens Advice Bureau. Solicitors and barristers have recently won a victory over proposed cuts to Legal Aid. The department had orignally planned to restrict the number of firms allowed to take on Legal Aid work until protests, conducted in particular by a group called Young Legal Aid Lawyers forced Justice Secretary Michael Gove to perform a U-turn.
Another policy reversal has come in the form of the magistrates' court charge, which has been dropped after opposition from magistrates, legal professionals and PCS. This charge would have penalised those who pleaded not guilty, and would have been applied irrespective of the accused's ability to pay.
Closures and cuts
The courts closures announcement came after the MOJ was the largest department to not have its budget ring-fenced. Unlike in previous courts closures, the MOJ will be able to keep the funds raised from the sale of its real estate. This money will be reinvested to pay for the department's efforts to digitalise the court service.
The aims of digitalisation include increasing the number of hearings that take place by video link from prisons, reducing the amount of paper used in courts and linking up the computer systems of different departments. Digitalisation will mean that those without easy internet access will struggle to access justice, while the number of MOJ staff will be massively reduced.
These cuts to the courts service will be on top of those brought about by the closure programme. Most of the courts and tribunals affected are in towns that service rural areas, with the work intended to move to the nearest city. One major concern is the danger that this could pose to victims and to witnesses of crime. For people travelling from a rural area to a trial beginning at 10am in the nearest city, the public transport options will be very limited, and could mean taking the same bus as the accused.
PCS is facing the huge challenge of defending access to justice and the jobs of its members. Labour opposes the MOJ cuts, but we can't wait until 2020 because too much damage will have already been done by then.
The opposition to court closures needs to go beyond campaigning to industrial action. The department made clear in its consultation that there will be more closures in the future, and is pressing ahead with the digitalisation agenda. Only a firm stand in defence of jobs and public services now can deter the government from taking on the union in the future.