On 10 May HMCTS announced its response to the consultation it launched in January 2018 regarding the principles that would inform future court closure proposals. For reasons beyond the control of PCS, the timing of this announcement meant we were unable to provide a response to the announcement sooner.
PCS submitted a carefully researched response to the consultation setting out our position on the principles advanced. That response remains unchanged.
PCS does not accept that the principles that HMCTS will adopt are based on ensuring access to justice, providing value for money for the taxpayer and ensuring efficiency in the long term. We believe efficiency is a euphemism for cuts to a public service which we maintain is already creaking under unrelenting pressure and chronic underfunding and is largely reliant on the goodwill and professionalism of our members.
PCS also does not accept that new technology and so called modern ways of working are not making justice more accessible. Indeed, we have presented evidence based representations to HMCTS that in Magistrates’ Courts and the Probate Service, both are slowing down and threatening the quality of justice and service that is delivered. In last year’s HMCTS People Survey only a third of respondents believed that the reform programme will mean that more people who use our services will receive a better service than they do today.
PCS does not accept that the consultation has addressed concerns about journey times. We do not accept it will be reasonable for the overwhelming majority of those who attend court to be able to leave home no earlier than 7:30am, attend their hearing and return home by 7:30pm the same day by public transport and it certainly will not be reasonable for our members who staff the courts. Proposals based on these principles will have a disproportionate impact on those with conditions protected under the equality act and with caring responsibilities, the vast majority of which are women.
The principles HMCTS will apply are likely to mean staff and members of the public travelling further, in more difficult circumstances particularly disabled staff and users and at greater cost. We believe these principles will also result in delays to cases being heard. Justice delayed is justice denied
PCS has repeatedly seen and successfully challenged suggestions by the employer as to what is reasonable travel for our members where little if any consideration of health conditions or caring responsibilities has been considered. We remain extremely sceptical of HMCTS’s ability to apply such principles for those using our services, particularly for those who may not be able to articulate their position as well as are able to for members.
There has been no meaningful consultation with PCS regarding the Design Guide that has been introduced. Making representations that arose out of a visit to one court and an observation of a court set up for one jurisdiction do not amount to consultation. We reminded HMCTS of their duty to consult not only in accordance with their policy obligations under the Managing Organisational Change and Collective Engagement Frameworks but their legal obligations to consult in accordance with the Safety Representatives and Safety Representatives 1977. No consultation meetings were forthcoming.
We discovered earlier this year that a final version of the guide had been signed off and was being used for the design of new court rooms as a result of both closures and integrations. We further discovered that principles being used not only placed our members at risk of being unable to protect themselves in the event of a violent incident but also failed to address the concerns we have repeatedly raised about the incompatibility of traditional court room design with digital working and the risks it presents to our members.
We are advised that there will be consultation in relation to a revised guide. This offers little solace when members' health and safety may already be at risk and experience shows HMCTS rarely involve trained health and safety reps in court room risk assessments. If any member has concerns about any “new build” court room they are required to work in, they should contact their local rep.
We note HMCTS’s commitment that they will:
- not propose to close courts unless they have sound evidence that the reforms are actually reducing the use of those buildings
- ensure they talk to the right people at the right time when considering the timing of future consultations
- consult publicly before any decision is made about future changes which will result in the relocation of a service from a local area.
But we remain concerned that these may be empty commitments. We believe previous consultations have been based on fundamentally flawed utilisation figures and that HMCTS have proceeded to close courts against overwhelming public opposition.
We further believe that the timing of this announcement is extremely cynical and that HMCTS should not have proceeded to make any decision before the Justice Select Committee has published its report on HMCTS and its recommendations addressed.
PCS has been committed to ensuring our members' interests have been at the forefront of our input into the consultation process. We reassert our commitment to protecting members' interests first and foremost in the light of this announcement and the proposals for further closures which we believe will inevitably swiftly follow. We remain committed to opposing all redundancies and compulsory relocations and any measures that place our members’ or the public's safety at risk.
The consultation response has been published on the HMCTS website. We encourage all members to read it and to feed their comments back to us. Emails should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org marked ‘Estate Strategy Consultation response.’