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Dismay at county court afternoon closures

5 August 2010

County courts in Greater London will be closed to the public in the afternoon throughout August, prompting further concerns about the quality of service in the capital’s courts.

Since the beginning of the week, the counters at 11 county courts have only been open from 10am, closing at 2pm instead of the usual time of 4pm and leaving some lawyers unable to list emergency applications.

One of the courts affected by the afternoon closures is Croydon, the second busiest court in Surrey. Nicola Jones-King, family partner at McMillan Williams and whose local court it is, has already had first-hand experience of the practical consequences of this decision.

“It’s near to a nightmare,” she said. “The number of people in the court office is such that on a normal day it’s packed to the gills already, so it’s going to be worse.”

Jones-King also said she was unable to get a case listed yesterday because the telephone lines to be used after 2pm were engaged all afternoon.

A spokesperson for the courts service said the decision was made to “strike a better balance between the provision of public counter services and the need to process court business efficiently during the summer holiday season”.

Court staff who would normally be on counter duty have been moved to the affected courts’ back office to handle administrative matters ordinarily dealt with by administrative staff on holiday.

District judges are still sitting as normal but ordinary applications can only be made before 2pm, although the courts service has said that “the temporary arrangements should not prevent anyone from conducting urgent business face to face”.

“There are telephone numbers available for court users who need an urgent service; to apply for an injunction, for example,” the spokesperson said.

Solicitors Journal understands that the decision was made with the agreement of the designated civil judge for London, David Mitchell.

The measure is also the first of this kind and lawyers fear that it reflects deeper issues about staffing levels within the courts service.

One barrister said the decision added to current concerns about endemic problems with the quality of service in the county courts.

“There is an underlying problem with poor service quality in the county courts, with high staff turnover and a lot of people employed part time. This can only be exacerbated by the decision to close counters in the afternoon,” she said.

John Brownrigg, head of family and mediation at Stone King Sewell, said “it cannot help clients receive the service they demand if courts are closing their counters in the afternoon”.

Brownrigg added he had “particular sympathy for any client seeking injunctive relief bearing in mind the speed of response these clients are demanding”.

The reduced counter opening times will be in operation at the following county courts: Barnet, Bow, Brentford, Croydon, Ilford, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Lambeth, Romford, Uxbridge, Willesden and Woolwich.

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