Having conducted site surveys in more than one third of magistrates’ courts (57 to be precise), our findings paint a deeply disturbing picture. Sadly, they will not be shocking to many practitioners who are used to working in poorly maintained court buildings.
Our study found serious accessibility failings in more than three quarters of magistrates’ courts. We rated nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of courts as in need of improvement and one in ten (12 per cent) as insufficiently accessible. And, while provision for the public and practitioners was patchy at best, we found that provision for disabled magistrates was even worse. For example, magistrates were prevented from sitting in certain courtrooms or even entire court buildings in 30 per cent of the courts we surveyed. One third of courts had no accessible toilet provision for magistrates.
Why we need access
Being able to enter your local court, without barriers, is essential for access to justice. But, as barrister Mark Henderson commented ahead of the launch of the Bar Council’s Access denied report, it is a right that can too easily be taken for granted. Our latest report reveals that barriers to access are far too common in the court estate.
The duties under the Equality Act 2010 and the principle of equal access to justice for all should be sufficient to justify government investment in accessibility adaptations and essential court maintenance.
However, universal accessibility is also a key part of an efficient and effective justice system. Failure to provide accessible court buildings precludes magistrates from sitting in certain courts and even in certain jurisdictions. The result is that the magistracy is under deployed. Court buildings cannot be used to their full extent and disabled magistrates cannot take up opportunities for sittings in inaccessible courts.
In the context of significant court backlogs, only recently down from their post-pandemic height, anything that prevents magistrates from undertaking their role must be rectified to ensure that cases can be heard.
The Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service are vocal in their commitments to achieving greater judicial diversity, particularly in the magistracy. In 2022, the £1 million ‘I can be a magistrate’ recruitment campaign sought to attract a diverse range of applicants to the magistracy.
However, this only pays lip service to inclusion and fairness within the justice system. Our report exposes a disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and disabled magistrates’ and court users’ lived reality. Only by creating an inclusive environment will we achieve greater judicial diversity. At present, the court estate is failing to achieve this.
One disabled magistrate summarised the issues with the government’s current, reactive approach to disability and access:
“Often the argument is used that we don't need to make these changes because we don't have any wheelchair users here. But, disabled magistrates can't come and sit there if it's not accessible. So, it's the Field of Dreams, isn't it? You build it and then they'll come.”
The way forward
Despite doubling spending on the court estate between 2021 and 2022, in magistrates’ courts, where 90 per cent of criminal cases are heard, basic features like step free access are lacking. Instead, headline grabbing projects like ‘super courtrooms’ and access to London’s Royal Courts of Justice account for large proportions of this spending, while local courts are neglected.
With the bill for the backlog of court maintenance at £1 billion in 2022 and 305 sitting days lost, the former Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, admitted that failing to invest in court maintenance was a false economy. In tackling the state of our crumbling courts, we believe that accessibility must be a core principle for investment to ensure that everyone can participate fully in the justice process.
Without accessible court buildings, an inclusive court estate that guarantees equal access to justice for all cannot be achieved.
You can read the full report on our website.
Helen Richardson is a Policy and Research Officer at the Magistrates’ Association, a national charity and the only membership body for magistrates in England and Wales. Run by and for its 12,000 members, it provides support, a community and development opportunities for members, as well as a voice on decisions that affect magistrates.