Shailesh Vara – 2016 Statement on HM Courts and Tribunals Estate

shailehsvara

Below is the text of the speech made by Shailesh Vara, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, on 11 February 2016.

The government is committed to modernising the way in which justice is accessed and delivered. We are investing over £700m over the next 4 years to update the court and tribunal estate, installing modern IT systems and making the justice system more efficient and effective for modern users.

Working closely with the judiciary, we have begun installing Wi-Fi and digital systems in our criminal courts but much more needs to be done. We want to make the entire justice system more accessible to everyone – witnesses, victims, claimants, police and lawyers – by using modern technology including online plea, claims and evidence systems and video conferencing, reducing the need for people to travel to court.

As part of this modernisation, the court and tribunal estate has to be updated. Many of the current 460 court buildings are underused: last year 48% of all courts and tribunals were empty for at least half their available hearing time. These buildings are expensive to maintain yet unsuitable for modern technology.

Court closures are difficult decisions; local communities have strong allegiances to their local courts and I understand their concerns. But changes to the estate are vital if we are to modernise a system which everybody accepts is unwieldy, inefficient, slow, expensive to maintain and unduly bureaucratic.

On 16 July 2015 I therefore announced a consultation on proposals to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. Over 2,100 separate responses were received, along with 13 petitions containing over 10,000 signatures. I am grateful to all who took the time to provide their views. It is clear from the responses that the service our courts and tribunals provide continues to be highly valued.

Having considered carefully all responses to the consultation, we have decided to close 86 of the 91 courts and tribunals. 64 sites will close as proposed in the consultation. A further 22 closures will take place but with changes to the original proposals. These changes, many suggested by respondents, include the identification of suitable alternative venues, such as local civic buildings; or different venues in the HMCTS estate to those originally proposed. I am very grateful to all those who engaged with the consultation to help us to reach the best solutions.

On average, the 86 courts we are closing are used for just over a third of their available hearing time. That is equivalent to less than 2 days a week. It will still be the case that after these closures, over 97% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car. This represents a change of just 1 percentage points for both criminal and County Courts. The proportion able to reach a tribunal within an hour by car will remain unchanged at 83%.

For each proposal in the consultation, we have considered access to justice; value for money; and efficiency. The consultation response, which is being published today, contains details of all the decisions and changes including an indicative timetable for closures, and will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Shailesh Vara – 2016 Speech on Family Justice

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Below is the text of the speech made by Shailesh Vara, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, on 21 January 2016.

Just prior to the Christmas recess, an error was identified in an online version of Form E.

This is the form provided by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in order to enable people to disclose financial information during divorce and similar proceedings.

This fault meant that the automatic calculator in the form calculated the wrong total for an individual’s net assets by failing to deduct certain liabilities.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) was alerted to the fault on 10 December 2015 and a corrected version of the form was put online on 14 December. However the wider implications of the faulty form were not immediately recognised.

As soon as I was made aware of this issue on 16 December, I ordered an urgent investigation.

The investigation found the faulty formula was present in versions of Form E which were online between April 2014 and mid December 2015 and between April 2011 and January 2012.

A total of 36,527 cases contain a version of Form E filed from these periods. HMCTS staff have now reviewed all these cases and found that 3,638 files – 10% – contained the faulty calculator version of Form E with an incorrect figure for net assets figure in the summary table.

1,403 of these cases are still live, allowing HMCTS to intervene immediately to clearly flag these cases to the courts in order to avoid the error affecting the final orders in these cases.

The remaining 2,235 files – 6.1% – were closed cases. Although the faulty form was used in these cases, it will not necessarily have had any effect on the ultimate outcome. Form E is only a part of the material used by the parties and the court and is used at an early stage, so the information is often disputed or superseded by further information introduced during proceedings.

Following the error coming to light, HMCTS established a dedicated email address which people could use if they were concerned about their own case: formE@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk. This email address was advertised on our website and also in all responses to media enquiries. As of 21 January, 51 members of the public have emailed us about their case.

I have instructed HMCTS to write to all parties in the 2,235 closed cases. The letter expresses our sincere regret for the error, sets out what happened and explains that, although Form E is just one part of the evidence used in their case, there remains a possibility that the error affected the final outcome.

The letter sets out options available to people involved in these cases. Some may wish to do nothing, if, for example, they know that the error was corrected during the proceedings or they do not wish to re-open their cases. If people think they have been affected by this error then they can apply to the court to vary or set aside their order. My officials consulted the President of the Family Division about the court rules and procedures that would apply to such applications or for any other proceedings that might be open to the parties. My officials also consulted the President on the development of a specific form for such applications. We have provided a link to the new form in our letter to the parties, as well as guidance on how to complete the form.

I have instructed that no court fee will be charged for making this application, and this is also made this clear in the letter from HMCTS.

We are also uploading a new version of Form E which makes clearer how the calculation of net assets should be made. We will also consider the future of Form E as part of our broader court reforms and the automatic calculator function will be disabled during this process.

This failure should not have happened. Divorce proceedings can be very difficult and I sincerely apologise for this situation and any distress it may have caused.