(CN) — Her Royal Majesty’s courts are disappearing — and going online. Sold-off Victorian courthouses have become swanky cocktail bars and high-end cafés. Less appealing concrete-clad courthouses are simply gone — razed to the ground and replaced by new developments. Others have been turned into apartments, and people sleep and eat where once judges, solicitors and court recorders worked.
In the past decade, about 250 courts and tribunals in England and Wales have been closed and sold off as officials in London push a sweeping, and controversial, effort to centralize and modernize Britain’s justice system, and cut costs.
Still more courts are expected to be sold off as Britain dismantles a system of courts put in place during the second half of 1800s meant to allow everyone to have a county court within 7 miles of home.
The closings include about half of the magistrate courts in England and Wales. These are lower courts that deal with a variety of criminal offenses and some civil matters. In some places, the nearest magistrate court is now more than 50 miles away. The closings are forcing defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers, judges and court workers to make long and costly trips back and forth.
The government is using profits from the sale of the courthouses to fund a $1.2 billion plan to digitize the court system. The sales have raised about $281 million so far. At the same time, about 4,500 court staff have been laid off, and about 2,000 more are expected to be axed by 2023.
This major overhaul of one of the world’s most vaunted, and respected, justice systems is giving many in the world of justice in Britain pause. There’s mounting evidence this push to modernize is hurting many of the same people who end up in the justice system: the poor and the vulnerable.
“The bottom line is that I don’t think the government cares about the people I represent using the courts,” said Sue James, a lawyer who specializes in housing cases and a critic of the court closings, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
The closings and push to put court matters online is now the subject of a review by the House of Common’s Justice Committee in London.
On May 21, the committee held its first hearing and witnesses who appeared before it painted a picture of a court system that has become overburdened and less efficient since the Ministry of Justice began selling off courts in 2010.
“My first recommendation is to stop closing more courts until we know the impact and see how it is actually affecting people, so that the questions that are being asked now have proper answers, based on statistics and research,” John Bache, the chairman of the Magistrates Association, told the committee.
He said the Ministry of Justice does “not seem to have any idea of the endgame” and that it has not done a thorough assessment of how the closings are affecting the justice system.
The problem, he said, is that the changes could hurt “the most vulnerable” because they face traveling long distances to get to court and may not be “digitally competent.”
The Ministry of Justice aims to steer about 2.4 million cases that take place every year in courtrooms into virtual online courtrooms. It is common now for lawyers to speak with defendants by video and for people to enter pleas to minor offenses — such as driving violations and not paying train fares — via a computer screen. Recently, the government made it possible to file for divorce online.
The government claims the changes increase “access to justice” and make the system more efficient. It says many courthouses were underused and that falling crime rates have made it unnecessary to have so many courts.
“The closure of any court is not taken lightly — it only happens following full public consultation and when communities have reasonable access to alternative courts,” Lucy Frazer, the former justice minister, told The Guardian newspaper recently.
“We are reinvesting every penny raised from selling these underused buildings into modernizing the justice system to provide swifter and easier access to justice for all,” she said.
But critics say the government’s push to sell off courts is a response to a 40% cut to the Ministry of Justice’s budget.
“The squeeze on funding suffered by the courts service in England and Wales is unprecedented,” said Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate and the director of Transform Justice, an advocacy group. “The government says access to justice will be enhanced by replacing physical courts with online courts, but there is no international evidence to support this.”
Experts say only one study by researchers at the University of Suffolk has looked at the effects of closing courts. The study looked at what happened after two out of three courts in Suffolk County were shuttered. It found the closings led to an increase in defendants and witnesses not showing up in court, cases taking longer to be completed and added financial strains to underpaid public defense lawyers.
For the poorest, the court closings are compounded by other changes in the United Kingdom. The government has cut the funds for legal aid — making it harder to get legal help for those who cannot afford private lawyers — and introduced a new welfare system called universal credit that is putting additional strains on the neediest.
“People are not able to get the advice they need before they get to court,” James said. “All of the cuts start to impact; they are layered on each other.”
Making matters worse is that promises that digitization will make the courts more efficient and attractive may be unfounded. Critics contend that the push to make more use of technology is a failure.
The government has been accused of burying data it collected, undermining its argument for an online future. The data showed people said they had a more positive experience with the court system when they went to a courthouse rather than having their matters dealt with by telephone or online systems.
At the recent hearing of the Justice Committee, legal experts said there were widespread problems with digitization, including malfunctioning video links, computer crashes, unreliable wi-fi inside courts and evidence that people feel disengaged when they interact via video.
Matt O’Brien, the chairman of the criminal law committee at the Birmingham Law Society, said research has suggested that magistrates may mete out longer sentences if their only contact with a defendant is through a video link.
“That is of real concern,” O’Brien told the committee. “It seems to me and my committee that more research should be done about engagement before any further rollout of video-link hearings takes place.”
In written testimony to the justice committee, a public service union representing court workers said efforts to use technology have been a failure and slowed down the processing of cases.
“Working digitally may assist international and commercial litigators but this is not the core work of our criminal, civil and family courts or tribunals,” the Public and Commercial Services Union wrote.
“Virtual rather than physical court hearings risk furthering inequality in the justice process,” the union said. It said that one in four people in Britain do not have “basic online skills” and that a significant number of people do not have internet at home.
It warned that many people caught up in the justice system are suffering from addiction, mental health problems and other difficulties, and reliance on video makes it hard “to assess and support those who are vulnerable.”
Also, the union said there are concerns about the privacy of video links. Lawyers have complained about having to shout during video conferences to communicate with their clients and that their conversations may be overheard by authorities.
The union also warned that an online and “largely lawyer-less” online court system could wind up leaving people at a disadvantage if they find themselves in litigation with big organizations with legal teams and better technology.
“These reforms risk treating court users as consumers,” the union warned.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)