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Concerns grow over county court closures

9 August 2010

The news that county courts in Greater London will be closed to the public in the afternoon throughout August, first reported on last week, has reignited concerns over proposed cuts to the courts service budget.

Since the beginning of the month, the counters at 11 county courts in London 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 in the London area 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 said she was unable to get a case listed earlier in the week because the telephone lines to be used after 2pm were engaged all afternoon.

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.

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.

In the meantime, it has emerged that courts in the Midlands region had also started operating a reduced summer service. In places such as Warwick, Oswestry and Newark, the counter will even be closed all day on days that judges are not sitting.

David Battisby, managing partner at Lanyon Bowdler, said that even before the current temporary closures court access was an issue at the best of times and that there was real concern about the proposed closure of more than 50 county courts around the country.

Battisby said a representative from the Ministry of Justice discussed the government’s proposals with local court users in the region but that lawyers and judges remained unconvinced.

“The MoJ has seen they’ve got premises that on the map are close together but in reality are not,” he said.

The consultation proposes to close a number of courts in the Midlands, including Ludlow, Oswestry and Shewsbury, but Battisby said transport links in the region were not good enough to ensure continued access to justice.

“The MoJ has office space which they are keen to rationalise but a more effective move could be to merge some of the tribunals with local courts,” he said.

The news that some courts will operate reduced hours has also been received with consternation by lawyers in other regions.

John Brownrigg, head of family and mediation at Stone King Sewell, in Bath, 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”.

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