Our Response to The Government’s Proposals to Close the Law Courts Building and Move its Services Out to Worthing / Portsmouth / Horsham … or points even further afield !
Question 1: Do you agree with the proposals? What overall comments would you like to make on the proposals?
We do not agree with the proposals insofar as they affect Chichester. There will be costs involved in running a court system and, although it is reasonable to look for economies, these should be secondary to the provision of accurate and prompt justice.
Delays of more than a year are already common in Chichester, and trying to stuff the caseload into busy courts at Brighton/Hove or Portsmouth is not going to help.
Question 2. Will the proposals for the provision of court and tribunal services have a direct impact on you? If yes, please provide further details.
The complete closure of Chichester’s courts would undoubtedly affect such of our members as may be required to attend.
Question 3: Are there other particular impacts of the proposals that HM Courts & Tribunals Service should take into account when making a decision? Please provide details.
The percentage utilisation of the court buildings is a crude measure. The lack of use could well relate to lack of judges, or delays preventing witnesses from attending, thus creating the need for adjournments. The latter factor will be exacerbated by the extra travelling that is envisaged in the proposals.
In any case, a figure of 78% occupancy is quoted locally for the crown court, and it is difficult to see how such a court could be considered under-utilised.
In respect of the Magistrates’ Court, we consider that local knowledge is an important factor in determining cases. Given also that evidence is often short and simple, forcing witnesses to travel for an extra hour each way means that witnesses will be sharply more reluctant to help in the administration of justice.
Question 4. Our assessment of the likely impacts and supporting analysis is set out in the Impact Assessment accompanying this consultation. Do you have any comments on the evidence used or conclusions reached? Please provide any additional evidence that you believe could be helpful.
The additional travel times are optimistic, to say the least. The car journey to Portsmouth or Brighton/Hove takes longer than the 30 or 50 minutes quoted, except well outside the rush hour – from personal experience, the Brighton journey can take over an hour and a quarter. Improvements to congestion blackspots are still years away. Nor is any allowance is made for finding a parking space.
For train journeys, no allowance is made for getting to the station and buying a ticket. Unless court timings are adjusted to suit trains, there may be additional waiting time – services from Chichester are half-hourly but from intermediate stations hourly. This is not London with trains every 5 minutes!
In any case, thought should be given to the problems of those attending from outlying districts. It may well take 30 or 40 minutes to get from Bognor or Selsey to Chichester. Add a further hour to that and double for the return journey, and there is a real disincentive to attend court. Moreover, the more complex a journey, the more things can go wrong, with consequent delays.
Question 5. Are there alternatives to travelling to a physical building that would be a benefit to some users? These could include using technology to engage remotely or the use of other, civic or public buildings for hearings as demand requires.
As the County Court deals more with civil cases, it may be possible to hold its cases in non-specialist buildings.
Video links for evidence should be regarded as unsatisfactory, as the limitations of video prevent the magistrates, judge or jury, as the case may be, from assessing the veracity of a witness. It is not only what the witness (or defendant) says, but body language has an important part to play. It has always been a principle of British courts that justice should be seen to be done, and this is eroded when video evidence is used extensively.
The hoped-for economies may not be as great as proposed, given that an officer of the court would have to be sent out to establish the reliability of each link.
Question 6: Please provide any additional comments that you have.
It seems perverse to be closing Chichester’s courts when under government-sponsored proposals the population of the area is planned to increase by some 25% in the next 15 years.
As Chichester has been a major legal centre for centuries, expertise has accumulated in the city. Under closure proposals, this will either be written off – or the lawyers will move to Brighton or Portsmouth, thus multiplying the problems of access for inhabitants of Chichester.