Watchdog blasts reasoning behind rural court closures

FRESH concerns have been raised over the impact of rural court closure after the Government’s countryside watchdog wrote to question the way decisions have been made.

Government decisions on closing a host of magistrates’ and county courts to save money have been based on assessments lacking “meaningful” data, the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) has warned.

And some of the impact assessments produced to show the effect of closing individual courts have been “rather insensitive” to remote areas – with some suggesting that closing buildings in some areas should be no hardship because the withdrawal of other services has forced local people to get used to travelling longer distances.

In his letter to Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly, the commission’s chairman, Stuart Burgess, says assessments designed to “rural proof” policies to make sure they take into account the unique challenges of parts of the countryside are “very superficial”.

“In the interests of transparency, I request that the Ministry of Justice carry out and publish a further assessment of the differential impact of the closures, providing more meaningful comparative data about the increases in public transport travel time for rural and urban communities,” he writes.

With budgets needing to be cut, the Government has decided to close 93 magistrates courts – including Goole, Selby, Keighley, Pontefract and Batley and Dewsbury in this region – and 49 county courts, including those in Goole, Pontefract, Keighley and Dewsbury.

Skipton’s magistrates’ and county court and the county court in Barnsley were also initially proposed for closure, although they were spared after fierce protests.

Ministers asked the commission to assess the impact of closures on rural communities when the first proposals were unveiled, but Mr Burgess says he is still not satisfied with the assessments which the department has published to justify going ahead with some of the closures.

He says there is only “limited recognition” that closures will result in increased travel times and public transport costs for some users, but says this is not quantified in “any meaningful way and there is no analysis of the differential impact on rural as compared with urban areas”.

But he does welcome a push towards more use of video conferencing as well as later hearings to help those in remote areas.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The court estate reform impact assessments recognised the particular impact on rural communities and we undertook detailed analysis of the changes to travel time arising from court closures, broken down by individual local justice area.

“Local communities, including people living in rural areas, should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend court.”

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