Lord Chief Justice calls for Welsh courts reprieve

Image caption,
Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke is expected to make a decision on court closure later this year

The Lord Chief Justice says a number of proposals to axe magistrates' and county courts in Wales cannot be supported.

The Ministry of Justice announced plans in July to consult on closing 15 courts.

But responding to the proposals, the senior presiding judge, Lord Judge said five should remain open and a further six should be reviewed.

A final decision is expected by the Lord Chancellor later this year.

The original courts earmarked for closure stretch from Flint Magistrates' Court in north-east Wales, down to Chepstow Magistrates' Court in the south.

The proposals also covered Rhyl and Pontypool County Courts.

But in his response, the Lord Chief Justice warns that if the plans proceed, there will be "little, if any, slack left" in the Welsh justice system.

"There is high unemployment and considerable social deprivation in parts of the country, while other parts are large, sparsely populated, rural areas," noted the senior presiding judge in the report published on Thursday.

"A bus or train fare for some will mean genuine hardship.

"In some cases I am of the view that poor facilities and low utilisation do not outweigh the genuine difficulty which court users will experience when travelling to court.

Lord Judge also expressed concerns over access to family justice services.

"There is nothing to suggest that family work has been a factor in the consultation and would urge consideration of this before any plans to close family centres are implemented," he added.

'Real difficulties'

The report, which is being presented to the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, states that five proposals to close courts cannot be supported.

These are Aberdare County and Magistrates' Court, Abergavenny Magistrates' Court, Cardigan Magistrates' Court, Llangefni Magistrates' Court and Pwllheli Magistrates' Court.

In the case of the Cardigan court, the review warns that those without a car could face a two hour bus journey to reach the proposed replacement services at Aberystwyth.

"A large part of the country would be a considerable distance from a court were Cardigan to close," states the report.

"This court, perhaps more than most, demonstrates the real difficulty between access to justice and modern-day appropriate facilities.

"On balance, I think retention is justified."

A similar case is made for Llangefni Magistrates' Court, as users would face travelling to Holyhead, which the Lord Chief Justice notes would mean "substantial and difficult journeys" for those in outlying areas.

The document also makes the case for reviewing whether closure is necessary at a further five magistrates' courts at Ammanford, Barry, Chepstow, Denbigh and also Pontypool County Court.

The Lord Chief Justice said that of the 15 proposals, only four did not face objections: Abertillery, Flint, and Llandovery Magistrates' Courts, and Rhyl County Court.

'Administering justice'

"It is obvious that a number of courts in different parts of England and Wales no longer fulfil any sufficiently valuable public purpose," added Lord Judge in his foreword to the report.

"The current national financial crisis has provided us with a useful opportunity to examine the court estate, and I supported this public consultation which provided an opportunity not only to examine the locations where our courts are situated, but also whether they were sufficiently meeting their purpose in the administration of justice throughout the country."

Responding to the views of the Lord Chief Justice, a spokesperson for Her Majesty's Court Service said: "The responses to each document will now be studied in detail, including consideration of alternative proposals from respondents, and the impact of each proposed closure analysed fully.

"Recommendations will then be made to the Lord Chancellor who will decide, in each case, whether or not to close the courts and whether to merge any Local Justice Areas.

"We anticipate that he will make his decisions later this year."

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