Friday, 2 October 2015

Court Closures Consultation

Our Response to the Ministry of Justice's Consultation on Court Closures


Among the 91 courts which the government proposes to close is Lambeth County Court. It is proposed that the cases which are currently handled by Lambeth County Court be transferred to Wandsworth County Court in East Putney, along with all the cases from Hammersmith County Court.

Lambeth County Court is the local County Court for our firm and we oppose its closure for the reasons set out below. In particular, it is felt that the court’s closure will limit access to justice for the local community and will result in a far poorer court service.

Access to Justice
 The Ministry’s consultation states that 95% of citizens will be able to reach a county court within an hour by car. This estimate is not relevant to those who use public transport and is in any event a doubtful estimate in London as congestion impacts greatly on car travel times.

The consultation paper states that “access to justice will be maintained by ensuring that any court to be considered for closure is within a reasonable distance of a retained court by public transport.” With regards Lambeth County Court specifically, it is stated that that the journey from Lambeth County Court to Wandsworth County Court takes 30 minutes by car. However, judging whether or not access to justice is maintained with reference to the distance between courts entirely misses the point. What is relevant is the travel times and costs for court users from their homes or work places to the court which they will be using. For example, a journey from Bermondsey SE1, that currently takes 30 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 15 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court. A journey from SE15 in Peckham that currently takes 30 minutes by bus one way to Lambeth County Court, would take 1 hour 25 minutes one way to Wandsworth County Court.

Travel to Wandsworth County Court by public transport is difficult from many of the areas the residents of which use Lambeth County Court. Wandsworth County Court is served by the London Underground but the underground system does not extend to Peckham and Camberwell or further south than New Cross in Lewisham. This means that users would have to take a bus first before being able to enter the underground system. They would then have to make a journey involving at least one change of underground line to reach East Putney. For some users this is too difficult a journey, for example a single mother with two young children whom she must bring to court with her. A journey involving a bus and then two changes of line on the underground would for her be extremely difficult if not impossible to manage. 

The cost of public transport in London is also prohibitive for some court users. This is particularly the case for users who are summonsed for housing possession cases where the matter concerns rent arrears or mortgage arrears. Travel costs add to the financial burden of people who are already facing losing their homes as they cannot afford to pay rent. For these individuals, the cost of travel to and from court may be equal to repayments they are required to make towards clearing arrears and so will add a significant further financial burden. Lambeth County Court also has users who are summonsed for debt claims, and small claims of various types who have multiple debts who simply cannot afford to pay to travel to court. 

The surrounding South London boroughs have some of the highest indices of poverty in London, and Lambeth County Court is the venue for housing possession cases for these boroughs. It is a huge area running from the River Thames and Bermondsey to the north, Lewisham and Eltham in the East, Brixton and Crystal Palace to the South and Clapham Common and Stockwell to the West. Travel time and costs to Wandsworth County Court for many people living within this area will be significant and much greater than those of travel to Lambeth County Court.

For example, the quickest journey time from SE16 3PB in Rotherhithe to Wandsworth County Court by public transport is 50 minutes one way and involves 25 minutes of walking, taking the over ground and then the Underground and costs £3.60. That means that a round trip would cost £7.20. This is not an insignificant amount of money for most people and for a person who, for example, is facing losing her home as she cannot afford to make a payment of £5 per week, it is a cost which she cannot meet, or not without significantly increasing the risk of her losing her home. In comparison, the journey from this postcode to Lambeth County Court takes 30 minutes one way by a single bus and costs £1.50. It would also be possible to walk to Lambeth County Court in 50 minutes.

For those users who want to bring witnesses with them to court it will be harder for them to ensure that their witnesses attend if they have to make difficult, long and costly journeys. Whether or not a person loses their home can depend on the attendance of supporting witnesses at court who may not necessarily be people who they know well. It is difficult to persuade such people to take time to attend a court which is only a 20 minute journey away, especially if they must miss work to do so. If they must spend a total of several hours travelling and a significant amount of money on transport to court they will be much less likely to agree to attend at all and especially not to attend on multiple days, which may ultimately result in a person losing their home.

Equally, it is very important for claimants including the Local Authority to have witnesses attend court who may be less likely to agree to do so if it will be costly and difficult to reach the court. If being a court witness is expensive, time consuming and inconvenient for the individual, people may even be dissuaded from reporting incidents to the Local Authority if they know they may be asked to appear as a witness as a result.

There are also a high number of small and medium businesses in the surroundings Boroughs many of which will be affected by the closure of Lambeth County Court. They need the court for their claims related to business, such as claims regarding commercial debt. The additional cost and difficulty involved in attending the court at Wandsworth may mean that they are less likely to use the court service as it will involve spending more money and more time away from their businesses.

A number of individuals never leave their borough and would be deterred from going to another borough to court as they do not know the area and would be frightened to go alone. Ethnic minorities may be disproportionately affected by the transfer as people who do not speak any or only limited English will find it very difficult to make a longer more complicated journey and may be more cautious about leaving their local community. People with mental health issues who already find it harder than others to engage with court proceedings may be willing to attend their local court with which they are familiar but would find travel to Wandsworth far too stressful.

Community relations
Lambeth county court is a genuinely local court and has good relations with the legal and wider community. This is demonstrated through the Court users group and other community initiatives, including the Cleaver Square summer fair, in which court staff participate alongside local residents.

The court staff are well known to the court users and demonstrate a great level of commitment and professionalism in their interaction with the members of the public and the legal professionals who attend the court. The security staff who also act as reception staff at the court are also well known by the court users and the community.

Lambeth County Court is a local court which many of its users walk to. There are many members of the community who are vulnerable for a number of different reasons, including mental or physical ill health and poverty, who walk to Lambeth Court and are familiar with the area, and who would not make the more difficult and longer journey to Wandsworth. The familiarity of the court staff with its users also makes it more likely that such vulnerable people attend and engage with the court.

Lambeth County Court also provides specific services which add to the court’s overall excellent service and which will be lost with its closure. In particular, it is served by the Duty Advocacy Scheme for Housing Possession cases in which members of local firms participate, who give up their time to attend and represent tenants summonsed for possession of their homes. It is uncertain as to whether members of the current scheme would be able to attend Wandsworth County Court even if the scheme was transferred there.

There is also a Help Desk which is run on two mornings a week by solicitors and barristers, members of the Law Department of London South Bank University, who supervise law students volunteering on the Desk. Three members of the court staff were awarded the HMCTS Community Engagement Award for the establishment of the Help Desk in partnership with London South Bank University. It is unlikely that this scheme would be able to continue at Wandsworth County Court given the distance from the university to Wandsworth Court.  

The Lambeth County Court judges are also happy for their hearings to be observed by law students which offers further opportunity for future solicitors and barristers to receive training.

Cost effectiveness
 It has been noted that Wandsworth County Court is not big enough to receive another county court. Extending the court physically will involve a cost which will inevitably reduce any savings the Ministry intends by closing Lambeth County Court. Unlike Lambeth County Court, Wandsworth Court does not have court rooms on the ground floor for wheelchair users. Lambeth County Court has two court rooms on the ground floor. There is a lift at Wandsworth but it can take significant amount of time to use as it must be operated by staff who are not always available.

Further, the greater difficulty and cost in reaching Wandsworth court for many users is also likely to result in an increase in the number of people who fail to attend court when summoned which will ultimately lead to greater costs in administration. It will also increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice if people are dissuaded from appearing at court or if they underestimate the journey time and miss the court hearing by accident. In some cases this may lead to an adjournment, which creates greater costs for the court and all parties involved. In other cases this may have more serious consequences, such as a person losing their home as he was not present to give his defence.  

The increased waiting times which will inevitably result from the greater number of users at a single court also mean that the legal process will been drawn out which will ultimately lead to greater costs for all parties involved. There is already significant delay in matters being listed at both Lambeth and Wandsworth County Court.  It often takes up to and in some cases over 6 months for a hearing to be listed, even where it was ordered to be listed on the first available date after 21 days.

This in turn results in increased legal aid costs which will also be affected by the greater journey times and costs for legal representatives. It also significantly increases Local Authority and Housing Association costs. This is entirely counterproductive and any savings made by closing Lambeth County Court will be equalled if not surpassed by the significant increase in public cost in other areas.

Making litigants wait for justice is a false economy. It costs Local Authorities, who are possibly the largest users of the court, both as Claimant and Defendant. It costs in Legal Aid bills and it costs private individuals and companies. The longer a case goes on, the more everyone pays. It does not make sense to think about savings in terms of the Ministry of Justice’s budget only. The other services funded by government, and even those by private individuals and companies, must also be considered. A waste of time and money is not good for the economy. 

As the closure of Lambeth County Court will make it more difficult for individuals to engage in court proceedings it is likely that in many cases an order will be made against them which would not have been had they had easier access to the court. In many instances this will in fact lead to greater costs for the Local Authority and government. For example, if a person is evicted from council housing for rent arrears rather than being given an opportunity to repay them, the Local Authority will be forced to write off these debts. In most cases, those individuals will ultimately be re-housed by the same Local Authority or Housing Association, as many of them are in priority need as they have children or disabilities. Therefore, even where limited access to justice for members of the public leads to the Local Authority having more success in bringing claims, it may ultimately be financially damaging to the Local Authority and the government.

It is also argued by the government that there will be gains made by selling court buildings. However, this is not relevant to the closure of Lambeth County Court as the building is not owed by the government and it may in fact cost money to early surrender the lease, which is not due to end until 2026.

Quality of Service
Some of the most important factors for those who use the court are being able to get to the court in reasonable time and being able to communicate with the court efficiently. As stated above, travel times and costs for users will be increased by the transfer of cases from Lambeth County Court to Wandsworth County Court. Furthermore, the handling of all the cases currently at Lambeth, Hammersmith and Wandsworth County Courts at a single court is likely to result in greater waiting times and slower responses to communications.

The ministry states that usage of Lambeth County Court stands at 37%. However, as court users we know that the court is very busy, and that hearings are listed for every day of the week, morning and afternoon. It is possible that this statistic may relate to the period when Judge Linda Pearce was ill.

It is also the case that a number of trials and one day hearings are being transferred to Central London County Court. This is because Lambeth County Court is so busy that it cannot accommodate these matters. It is also frequently the case that a trial will be transferred to another court the day before it takes place as there is no longer a judge available at Lambeth which causes further delay and costs.

The sole reason that Lambeth County Court is not used to full capacity at all times is that there are not enough judges, not that there is not a need for all court rooms to be used. This is evidenced by the frequency with which there is either a long delay in listing matters or matters are transferred to Central London County Court. There are empty court rooms at Lambeth due to a lack of judges not because there are too many court rooms. 

Housing possession cases are listed five days a week and the judges at Lambeth County Court are well known for having expertise in housing possession cases due to the high volume of cases they hear. They are also familiar with the Local Authority and the local housing associations. Lambeth County Court provides an excellent service which is tailored to the requirements of its users. This kind of service will be virtually impossible to recreate at Wandsworth County Court given the large area which will be served by the court.

We do not believe that the closure of Lambeth County Court and the transfer to Wandsworth will result in an improved service, nor that any decrease in the quality or speed of the service will be outweighed by the monetary savings. In the context of the extensive cuts to legal aid which are being made, the closure of courts such as Lambeth County Court will create yet another barrier preventing access to justice.



Wainwright & Cummins LLP

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