FRU response to MoJ consultation highlights some concerns

FRU has made a response to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation paper “Fit for the future: Transforming the court and tribunal estate”. Whilst FRU welcomes some elements of the plans, including ‘pop up’ hearing centres using community facilities, we expressed some concerns about the overall approach.

The consultation addresses MoJ’s plans for its future requirement for physical court and tribunal venues.

Our concerns include:

  • The MoJ aims to reduce the number of hearing centres because in future more people will take part in their case online or by video. However the impact on justice from moving away from face to face hearings is currently unknown and the research is limited. Although online or virtual hearings might be more attractive to many court users, they may get a worse outcome than they would have done from a face to face hearing. Reducing the court estate before the impact on justice is known is a gamble that would be hard to reverse.
  • The impact analyses on different groups within society is currently inadequate. For example the MoJ assumes that for most people being involved in legal proceedings is a rare event so longer travel times to a hearing centre are justified. However different groups in society are more likely to be involved in legal proceedings due to their circumstances, for example someone who is dismissed from their employment may have an Employment Tribunal claim and debt or housing issues and may be refused entitlement to a social security benefit. Some groups may be disproportionately affected by these plans and FRU does not believe that these impacts have been adequately identified or addressed.
  • FRU disagrees with proposals to move away from using a target of a given number of hours travel time to a different hearing centre to judge whether a court closure is reasonable. We believe that a target is needed together with real-world modelling of travel times and availability by public transport linked to realistic analysis of case listing practices.
  • We caution against the use of data that suggests that some court and tribunal buildings are under-used. They may be under-used due to a lack of judicial sitting time or other resources, so there may be empty court rooms but lengthy waiting times for cases to be heard. Capacity modelling should ensure that the interests of justice are served by enabling prompt case listing.
  • FRU is concerned that the amount of support that many users will require to access digital services is still being under-estimated.

We await MoJ’s response to the consultation with interest.