In July 2015, the government announced plans to close 57 Magistrates Courts, 19 County Courts, two Crown Courts, four tribunal hearing centres and nine combined courts across the country. The proposals are the subject of an ongoing consultation which ends on 8th October 2015.
As a housing solicitor, I represent tenants and owner-occupiers facing possession proceedings in the County Court. The current plans would involve closing 12 County Courts in the North West; Accrington, Bolton, Bury, Kendal, Macclesfield, Oldham, St Helens, Tameside, Stockport, Altrincham, Warrington and West Cumbria.
If the closures go ahead, the work currently dealt with by these County Courts will be taken over by other County Court hearing centres in the North West. However, this is going to involve a significantly lengthier and more expensive journey for most people trying to access the Court for hearings and to file documents etc.
Most people, whether they are renting property or are owner-occupiers, find themselves facing possession proceedings where there has been a significant financial crisis in their personal life and they have fallen into arrears. This may involve illness which results in time of work and loss of pay, redundancy, problems with an employer’s solvency resulting in unpaid wages, having to take unpaid time off work to look after a relative and problems with welfare benefits being suspended and lengthy delays in the processing of benefit claims. This means that when possession proceedings are issued, in my experience it is often at a time when the individual has very limited financial means and is struggling in difficult circumstances.
When faced with possession proceedings, the individual may require several appointments with their solicitor before the court hearing and there may need to be several attendances at court before the proceedings can be finally resolved. Often, the first court hearing will be adjourned whilst outstanding issues are resolved, such as benefits claims being processed, further employment is found or where somebody is due to return to work in the near future and will then be in a position to repay any arrears.
It is not unusual for there to be two or three court hearings before a final decision is made and at each one the attendance of the individual is required. Most people also find court proceedings very daunting and would bring a family member or friend with them for support. In my experience, many clients who find themselves in these difficult circumstances suffer with anxiety and depression which is exacerbated by the stress of the court proceedings and the individual is dependent on the support of another person to come with them to help them deal with the very stressful situation.
As these individuals are already in severe financial circumstances, finding the additional funds to travel to a court hearing centre which is much further away than the local court will be extremely difficult. If they do not have their own transport (and in my experience very few do), they may have to rely on several methods of public transport such as getting one or two buses and a train and they will often have to travel at peak times to make sure they get to court on time for early morning hearings. Indeed, if their hearing is listed in the afternoon, the return journey is likely to involve travelling at peak times when the cost of tickets is higher.
When a case reaches the end stage of the bailiffs being instructed to attend a property to change the locks, the individual can still apply to court to suspend the enforcement of a warrant of eviction. However, to do so they will need to attend at court with their application and the court fee to have the application dealt with and a hearing listed. In most cases, the hearing will not be on that day and will involve a second journey back to court for the hearing on a later date. Again, this is asking people in difficult financial circumstances to find additional funds to travel to courts which are further away, when previously they are likely to have been able to walk to their local court if they couldn’t afford public transport.
When you consider that somebody between the ages of 18 and 24 claiming Jobseeker's Allowance will receive a maximum income payment of £57.90 per week, it is hard to imagine how they would be able to afford public transport to and from a court hearing centre that is not near their property, which may involve several different types of transport. When you also factor in other financial hardship faced by tenants in private housing, such as the cap on Local Housing Allowance or the reduction in Housing Benefit because of the bedroom tax, many people are already struggling to find the funds to cover their basic needs.
It seems to me that if the court closures go ahead as planned, many people simply won’t be able to afford to get to court and if the individual is not there to defend themselves, there will be many more possession orders made and eviction dates set. This will undoubtedly make justice much harder to access.
If you would like to sign the petition against the closure of St Helens County Court, you can do so here.