Half of all magistrates’ courts in England and Wales have closed since 2018.
The startling figures are revealed in a briefing paper released by the House of Commons’ library.
It follows a major programme of reform designed to reduce the need for physical attendance at certain types of hearing.
According to the paper, between 2010 and 2018:
- 162 magistrates’ courts closed, out of 323 (50%);
- 150 electoral constituencies (out of 659) contained a magistrates’ court which closed, with 12 constituencies containing two courts which closed;
- The sale of court buildings raised around £223 million to the public purse;
- The South East saw the most magistrates’ court closures (25), followed by Wales and the North West (22 each).
The Law Society of England and Wales says the closures are impacting on the process of justice.
“We are concerned that some of the court closures have severely restricted defendants, victims and witnesses from accessing justice,” it says in a Parliamentary briefing, Criminal justice system in crisis.
“The effect of closing courts means that many people have concerns about distance, cost and safety in having to travel further to access justice, including those who live in rural communities with limited travel options. A lack of travel options in such areas, furthermore, means there is a possibility for witnesses, victims and defendants to all travel via the same method to court, which opens the possibility for intimidation.”
The Law Society’s paper also highlights other deficiencies in the English and Welsh legal system, including a growing shortages of duty solicitors, increasing court closures, barriers to accessing legal aid, and crucial evidence not being available until the last minute.
“Taken together, all of these problems represent a criminal justice system at breaking point – and without urgent action the system will fall apart,” it says.