Thursday, 22 October 2015

Consultation on court closures

Consultation on the Ministry of Justice proposal on the provision of court and tribunal services in Wales closed on the 4th of this month. There has been no announcement yet confirming any closures, which may be a good sign that the MoJ is actually taking time to consider representations. In response to a question by Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) at Business Questions today, the Leader of the House of Commons held out the hope that there might be a debate in parliament on the MoJ's conclusions before they are put into effect.

It would be useful if the Minister, Michael Gove, actually came down to south Wales to look at the hinterland of the courts he seeks to rationalise. Public transport is not a patch on what it is in London and the home counties, and it is getting worse because of subsidy cuts from both the Welsh government and local authorities. Some idea of the attitude of Conservative members can be gleaned from the offhand remark of one when taxed with the difficulties caused to vulnerable people if Brecon courts were to be closed: "Oh, it only takes an hour to drive to Swansea".

Nor is the proposed use of video links yet a practical solution. I understand that Neath magistrates court was closed largely on the premise that a video link with Swansea would be available at the time of the closure in September last year. In fact, it has not yet been provided and will not be in place before January 2016 at the earliest. Even when installed, there is no guarantee that it will be reliable: I recall sitting in on a South Wales Police conference call when one of the stations which should have been contributing stayed resolutely off-line for most of the session.

The population of the old West Glamorgan area is growing, and not just because of the Llandarcy Village project and the Swansea University expansion. There is also the shadow of the current Welsh Government's determination to re-jig local government boundaries once again, something which has been put on hold until after next year's general election. It does seem a strange time to be reducing court capacity. At the very least, the Minister should wait to see how the court structure would fit into any new local government arrangements before setting his proposals in stone.

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