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Burton upon Trent County Court

27th July 2010

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a debate on the proposed closure of Burton upon Trent County Court.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I welcome this debate to discuss our proposal to close the Burton upon Trent county court, subject to consultation. This might have been my hon. Friend's first appearance in Westminster Hall, but it was certainly a good one, and he ably represented his constituents' best interests.

Allow me, Mr Williams, to set out the Government's position on our proposals to reform and rationalise the court estate. I will provide details of the reasoning behind including Burton upon Trent on the list of possible closures. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to respond to the consultation that closes, as he will be aware, on 15 September. County courts across England and Wales have seen a real change in recent years because Her Majesty's Courts Service has dramatically increased access to online and telephone services. Currently, 70% of money claims, and the vast majority of possession actions, are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements, or for not paying their TV licence on time. They can pay off debts or court fees online, using a wide variety of methods. We are working to improve the availability of information on the web and over the telephone, using dedicated information centres with comprehensive details of all civil and family cases, so that fewer people will need to travel to court to ask a question.

We cannot continue to deliver the same level of service in the same way and ignore the changing needs of society. New technologies, which we are all confident about and use in our everyday lives, have not been sufficiently adapted for use in the courts, although they are essential to streamline our processes and improve services for the public. That is why, in addition to consulting on the courts estate, I am inviting members of the public, MPs, and others with an interest, to give me their ideas for improving and modernising the courts service.

HMCS is also looking at how to speed up the experience for court users in the county court by changing how the back offices work. We are establishing a series of large, multi-purpose, multi-skilled administrative centres, which will centralise claims and process work from all county courts, thereby freeing up front-line services and staff to focus on supporting more complex cases that need judicial intervention. That is not a new innovation; there has been an incremental move towards more centralised administrative centres for 30 years. The concept has been successfully tested in local business centres, and we plan to centralise civil work into two key locations in Salford and Haywards Heath, where civil claims will be administered until judicial intervention is necessary. We will also continue to support high-volume users in our bulk centre in Northampton.

Wherever court users can make use of a non-judicial intervention for family and civil cases, we must provide them with all the support and information that they need to explore a variety of dispute resolution routes. A large number of cases go to court, but in practice many people find the full court experience to be inconvenient, intimidating and expensive, as well as slow and unpleasant. That is neither necessary nor in the best interests of either party in the case. Providing options for alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation conducted over the telephone, is often a better, and less stressful, option for people involved in court cases.

Where judicial involvement is required, we are exploring whether in future physical attendance at court is always a necessity. Can the use of telephone hearings be extended? Does video conferencing technology open new possibilities? In that context, let me point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) that fines are not dealt with by the county court. Fines are one area where we know that having a physical court does not result in higher payment rates. However, my hon. Friend's point was well made, and I confirm that we have invested in making it easier to pay fines using methods such as telephone, internet and so on, in order to improve the rate of payment.

Since Lord Woolf's civil justice reforms in 1996, the number of civil cases has declined by 20%. In order to meet future needs of customers in a faster, more efficient and affordable way, we are working closely with partners across the civil justice system, including Citizens Advice and the Legal Services Commission, to increase the provision of mediation and further improve court procedures. Furthermore, we will work closely with the judiciary to support work on procedural improvements.

Although cost is by no means my only concern, given the dire national economic situation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Burton acknowledged, we cannot forget the savings that would be delivered by this programme of closures. If all courts under consultation were to close, we would achieve savings in running costs of £15.3 million per year, as well as avoiding a backlog of £21.5 million in maintenance costs. A further assessment will be necessary on the level of savings that could be achieved and the potential value that could be released from the disposal of properties.

The closure of Burton county court would save around £106,000 in operating costs that would no longer have to be paid. Furthermore, we would not be liable for the additional investment of around £450,000 in maintenance backlog costs. I confirm to my hon. Friend that we are looking at the area as a whole, and we know that there is a high density of county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia. As less work is dealt with in the courts, we will need fewer court buildings. We want to ensure that we have all the evidence available before making decisions about which courts provide us with the best service and should remain open. Therefore, I encourage all affected MPs to write in to the consultation with their views.

Andrew Griffiths: I thank the Minister for explaining much of the rationale behind his decision, but there will always be people who need to access the court system. Will the Minister explain what he believes would be a reasonable amount of travel time for accessing a county court? Has he done any work on the impact that increased travel time has on non-attendance at county court hearings?

Mr Djanogly: We have considered that point, and we felt that a travel time of 60 minutes would be appropriate. I will come on to that point if I have time. In his earlier remarks, my hon. Friend said that attendance at court is a stressful experience, and he spoke about situations of bankruptcy, family breakdown and divorce. As traumatic as those things are, most people will not frequently get divorced or be declared bankrupt, so the comparison that he made with the closure of a local post office-something used by many people on a daily basis-was not accurate.

Having talked to some MPs during the programme of consultation, I am aware of the prevailing view that the principles on which we are consulting are right. Understandably, however, few MPs wish their own local court to close. The passion about this issue that I have seen from all MPs-not least my hon. Friend-is admirable and important to our constituents. Nevertheless, if we accept that we have to reduce the courts estate considerably for the good of the public, we must also accept that sometimes the court in our own constituency may be the most strategic one to close.

Some of the local county courts in Staffordshire and West Mercia have larger and better facilities that are multi-functional and can take a large proportion of the work in the area. As far as possible, we want to try and focus work in those courts. It is our responsibility to think about what is best for the whole of the area, and we believe that the five larger courts at Hereford, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Telford and Worcester would offer the area a strong, efficient and effective civil court system.

There are 10 members of staff at Burton county court, and a total of 43 staff in all the county courts proposed for closure in the Staffordshire and West Mercia area. Once the Lord Chancellor has made his final decisions about whether and which courts to close, we will work closely with the trade unions to look at the impacts on staff.

No member of the judiciary is based at Burton county court, although two district judges sit a total of 127 days per year, with a further 51 days of deputy district judge sittings per year. That is marginally less than the standard we have set, but we must consider the area as a whole. Across Staffordshire and West Mercia, county courts are considerably underused, with an average utilisation rate of 61%. We know which courts offer the best long-term opportunities to continue to deliver a good-quality service in larger multi-functional facilities.

Burton courthouse is under the freehold ownership of HMCS and does not offer facilities to the standards that one would expect of a county court. For a start, it would not be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 unless significant maintenance work took place. Hearings and counter services at Burton county court will transfer to either Derby or Stafford county courts, depending on which is closer for the parties involved. Both Stafford and Derby county courts are purpose-built buildings with a high standard of accommodation and facilities for court users, judiciary and staff.

Andrew Griffiths: I would like to confirm what the Minister meant when he said that the decision about whether a court user has to go to Derby or Stafford county court would depend on the distance to be travelled. Is it correct to say that if Derby is closer, a person would not be forced to go to Stafford?

Mr Djanogly: The distance would be different for various constituents. One court may be more appropriate than another because of what it does. Not all courts do the same things so we cannot generalise in that way. I appreciate the issues about distance and travel raised by my hon. Friend. He made his points well, and he should submit them to the consultation.

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