Berkeley Lifford Hall Accountancy ServicesAlphabiolabsHousing Law Week

Consultation launched on transforming court estate

Proposals follow piloting of online system for divorce applications

The Ministry of Justice is seeking views on how the court and tribunal estate can change to support the transformation of the justice system to make access to justice quicker, easier and fairer. A consultation asks for opinions on how to best make decisions about courts across the country, focusing on ensuring access to justice, delivering value for money and enabling efficiency in the longer term.

Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said:

"As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for Court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice. Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable."

The consultation notes that working people can now make a number of claims online, including filing for divorce. Fully virtual options – where a case is hearing by an online video hearing – are also being tested for some court cases. This will save people the time and money spent travelling to court and waiting for their hearing.

Five separate, regional consultations have also been published seeking views on the closure of eight courts across the country where it is believed that workload can be better allocated at other courts close by.

Following an earlier consultation in July 2015, HMCTS has been closing some courts which it says are underused, dilapidated and not necessary to deliver effective justice. When this is complete, HMCTS will occupy around 340 court and tribunal buildings providing face to face services. The MoJ says that over 90 per cent of these will be less than 15 miles from another court or tribunal, and the majority will be less than five miles away. £114.7 million has already been raised from building sales, which has been ploughed back into modernising our courts and tribunals services and making it easier for people to access justice.

The changes introduced through digital reforms will mean, in the view of HMCTS, that there are many more ways to access justice without the need to travel or physically attend court. For those that do need to go to court, there will be more modern and well-connected courtrooms.

In relation to divorce, the main consultation document says that the new online divorce service makes the difficult process of navigating a divorce easier and less expensive.  It notes that under the old system 40 per cent of paper divorce application forms are returned because they are incorrectly completed. The courts' digital system has been designed to eliminate this 'failure demand' as far as is possible, and as a result only around 10 per cent of applications are being rejected through the system. It is hoped to reduce this further as the service develops. Similarly, before to the introduction of HMCTS's help with fees system, some 75 per cent of paper forms were rejected, largely because the form was confusing and rarely completed correctly. The online system, says the consultation, is hard to fill in wrongly, and so rejections now run at closer to 20 per cent and are typically the result of a genuine eligibility issue, rather than a failure to fill the form in appropriately.

Currently, of the 114,000 divorce cases started only 4,000 hearings took place to resolve the divorce or financial settlement.

To access the consultation documents, please click here.