Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, has voiced her concerns about the potential closure of Oldham’s Magistrates’ Court and Oldham and Tameside County Courts and the impact this will have on the public’s access to justice.
Debbie said: “I’m very concerned that the Government’s cuts to legal aid and the closure of courts will lead to justice deserts in many areas, especially more outlying communities like Saddleworth and Shaw who will face even longer journeys to access justice.
“The closures mean it will be more difficult for victims, witnesses, claimants and defendants to attend courts and engage with the justice system.
“I’ve received a letter from a solicitor who specialises in family law who shares my concerns.
“In their letter to me the solicitor described some of the problems they currently experience with public law cases which have been listed at Manchester for several years now, and how they have seen first-hand how difficult their clients often find travelling to Manchester.
“Their clients have missed hearings because they simply cannot afford to go to Manchester as the cost of public transport is prohibitive, particularly bearing in mind the court listing times require travel prior to non-peak 9:30am time.
“They also said that these closures combined with the further proposed increase in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid limit the accessibility of the justice system.
“The Government has said that access to courts would be supplemented by, for example, remote video conferencing facilities but currently there is no legal authority available to a court to do this and it would take a change in the law to make it possible. So, clearly, the Government need to make sure that the alternative arrangements it is suggesting, like video conferencing, are actually in place before closing any courts down.
“Andy Slaughter MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister, has responded to the government’s consultation on these closures, stating that the benchmark of a one hour journey by car is ‘out of touch’ as most clients rely on public transport; a service which is often unreliable especially at peak times.
“I’ve written to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Justice, Shailesh Vara MP, voicing my concerns, and those of constituents have contacted me, including the point that thousands of pounds are being wasted in the cost of running disused courts and tribunals buildings which are yet to be disposed of.
“A number of these courts are still having their running costs paid by the taxpayer, despite the government announcing their closure in June 2010!
“This is in contradiction to a statement by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Justice who said that it was a requirement of the department to dispose of assets of this kind within 3 years of them being closed.
“Once again this Tory government is squeezing the least well-off in society, wasting money, and this time they are taking away the the public’s basic right to access our justice system.”