The government has revealed plans to close Banbury magistrates’ court causing an outcry from many who describe it as a ‘hammer blow to local justice’.
A 10-week consultation opened yesterday (Thursday, January 18) seeking the public’s views on the closure of eight courts across the country including Banbury’s.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) says the town’s magistrates’ and county court is ‘significantly underused’, the building is in need of repair and all work can be transferred to Oxford ‘easily’.
A Cherwell District Council spokesman said: “The idea of closing Banbury Magistrates’ Court flies in the face of work Cherwell District Council is doing to plan for the future growth and prosperity of the district.
“It is only right that as we welcome new residents to the district they should be able to count on a full range of resources and amenities.
“This includes the expectation that witnesses, victims, and others affected by criminal offences, should be able to see justice done in their local community.
“Increasing the pressure on Oxford Magistrates’ Court will incur further costs and delays to those seeking justice and we question whether that court has the capacity to deal with the proposed changes.
“The council will be completing the HMCTS consultation survey and will be raising such issues therein.”
Labour group leader at Cherwell District Council, Cllr Sean Woodcock, said: “I am very worried and disappointed by these proposals which I will be opposing strongly.
“My experience of the courts in Oxford is that they themselves are already overstretched.
“So I am not convinced that there is the capacity there to deal with the extra work caused by closing the courts in Banbury.
“That is without mentioning the principle of justice being easily accessible to people in their community; a feature of the judicial system in England since the Middle Ages.”
HMCTS argues Banbury’s court is not used enough to remain viable, with the courts sitting for 2,211 hours out of a possible 3,810 available in 2016/17, costing approximately £180,000.
But the Public and Commercial Services Union believes the government has been intending to shut these courts for some time and work has been moved or proposed for removal to facilitate closure.
North Oxfordshire MP Victoria Prentis said: “I was made aware of the plans yesterday and have already met ministers in the department to request that consideration is given to the usage of the magistrates court in Banbury, the distance to neighbouring courts and capacity elsewhere.
“I will examine their evidence closely and make recommendations where possible given the importance of ensuring services are accessible to all, particularly in a growing town like Banbury.”
The consultation papers also cite the building’s unsuitable design – having been built in the 1920s, there is poor disabled access and the prisoner van dock backs onto a residential area.
Justice Minister Lucy Frazer also said the developing use of technology meant the court buildings were being used less.
“This government is investing over £1bn to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer,” she said.
“As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice.
“Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable.”
The PCS believes the closures, which also include Maidenhead magistrates’ court, will result in delays to cases being heard and deepen the impact on staff morale.
The union, one of the largest in the UK, claims the closures are all to ‘release funding’ and called for the minister to put a stop to them.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This announcement is yet another hammer blow to local justice from a Tory government with a sorry record of closing 38.5 per cent of courts and tribunals since 2010.
“We do not accept that closing any of these courts would improve the quality of the service the Ministry of Justice provides.
“We do not accept that the changes that HM Court and Tribunals Service is making and envisage for the future are about improving the justice system or access to justice.
“The new justice secretary should order a review into the court closure programme and halt any further closures pending full discussions with the unions.”
To take part in the consultation and for more information, click here.