CLOSURE OF LAMBETH COUNTY COURT RAISED IN DEBATE
Plans to close Lambeth county court and move much of its work from Kennington to Putney have been criticised in a lengthy debate in the Houses of Parliament by Dulwich and West Norwood MP Helen Hayes (Lab).
She told a Westminster Hall debate the proposal on which the Government consulted was to close Lambeth county court in Cleaver Street, Kennington and move all of its business to Wandsworth county court in Putney.
“That is almost five miles away as the crow flies, but it is a complicated journey on several buses for residents on low incomes who cannot afford the train or tube. “East-west journeys in south London are invariably more difficult than journeys into and out of central London.
“Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country, effectively making it a specialist court, and it is situated in an area with one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the country.
“In addition to housing possession claims, the other types of work undertaken at Lambeth county court are cases concerning children, domestic violence and money claims.
“It is some of our most vulnerable residents across the spectrum, including our young people, who will be most significantly impacted by this decision.
“I took the opportunity during the consultation period to speak with lawyers from Lambeth and Southwark who represent residents at Lambeth county court about their concerns about the proposed closure.
“I am grateful to them for the time they took to do that and to the minister for meeting me during the consultation to discuss those concerns.
“The Minister has listened to some of the concerns raised during the consultation, and as a consequence, the proposed closure of Lambeth county court has changed somewhat, such that housing possession hearings will now move not to Putney but to Camberwell magistrates court.
“I have brought this matter to the House for debate today because that decision will not now be subject to further consultation; because there are important questions about the decision that need to be answered; and because, ultimately, I am not confident that the revised proposal will address all of the concerns raised about the closure of Lambeth county court.
“The first area of concern is the impact of the closure on access to justice and the cost of justice for people who will now have to attend court in Putney rather than Kennington.
“Many people attending court will now be faced with a significantly longer journey and particularly those on low incomes who cannot afford to travel by train or tube.
“From parts of Lambeth and Southwark, residents will face a round trip of up to four hours on four different buses each way to get to Putney. “That is worse than the impact on travel time of some of the court closures proposed in rural areas.
“My worry with a much longer, more complex journey to court is that many residents simply will not make it at all.
“The attrition in attendance experienced at family courts following a previous closure programme and the subsequent inefficiencies has been clearly documented and was raised with me only this morning by the borough commander in Lambeth.
“The consequence is that a theoretical cash saving on paper is translated in reality into either cases being delayed, causing additional expense to the public purse, or residents not having the opportunity to give evidence at their own hearing, therefore denying them access to justice.
“The second area of concern is the loss of specialism at Lambeth county court. “Lawyers who work in my constituency tell me that one reason the court works comparatively well is that it is effectively a specialist housing court……
“A third area of concern is the potential impact of the closure on the duty solicitor scheme in Lambeth. “The current duty solicitor service is staffed by dedicated legal aid lawyers who have chosen to stay in that area of law as legal aid has been cut, earning very modest pay, in order that they can represent the most vulnerable residents and ensure that those residents receive justice.
“The lawyers I have spoken to who work within that scheme tell me that the margins are so extremely narrow that the significant additional travel time associated with a move to Putney could easily mean the collapse of the current scheme because it will no longer be viable.
“I am extremely concerned about what that will mean for residents who have been able to rely on representation from trusted local law centres and legal aid firms for many years and, again, the impact on access to justice.
“A fourth area of concern is the impact of the move on the public sector, and particularly the social work services of Lambeth and Southwark. “If cases involving children are now to be heard in Putney, social workers who have to go to court will face a trebling of their current journey time.
“Those are the same social workers who have very heavy case loads and who work to support many vulnerable families who are already stretched and on whom the current cuts to council budgets are taking a heavy toll.
“I do not believe that the impact of the proposal on that area of the public sector has been considered at all, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.”
Turning to the proposal to move housing possession hearings to Camberwell magistrates court rather than to Putney, Helen Hayes said that although she very much welcomed the fact that the minister has listened and responded to the concerns that have been raised, very little detail has been set out about how exactly the proposal will work.
“Camberwell magistrates court is already very busy. It is on a constrained site, and it is not clear how Camberwell will physically be able to accommodate additional housing possession hearings on top of the current volume of cases that are heard there.
“Concerns have been raised that the figures used to underpin the consultation relating to usage levels at Lambeth county court were not, in fact, accurate at all.
“On the move to Camberwell, it is not clear whether the administrative functions of Lambeth county court in relation to housing possession cases will now be based at Camberwell magistrates court, or whether they will move to Putney and only possession hearings will take place at Camberwell.
“If the administrative functions move to Putney, there is concern that some vulnerable residents facing eviction will still have to travel to Putney to initiate administrative processes that require attendance in person, such as applying for a stay of eviction.
“If the administrative functions move to Camberwell, it is imperative that Camberwell does not become overloaded. “We know what overloaded courts look like.
“Everyone I have met who has had any experience of the Central London county court since it moved to the royal courts of justice describes it as being like the Chancery Court in Dickens’ novel Bleak House, such are the delays and inefficiencies there.
“The detail is important here, and I ask the Minister to respond to the following points in his reply: how many judges will move to Camberwell? How many hearings will transfer to Camberwell? What physical space will be made available at Camberwell? Where will the judges at Camberwell be based when they are not sitting in hearings?”
Responding, Mr Shailesh Vara, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, commended Helen Hayes on securing the debate.
“We have met about the matter—and I take the opportunity to put on record that she is an extraordinarily diligent and conscientious Member of Parliament who has spoken up very effectively for her constituents in the short time that she has been an MP.
“It is absolutely clear from today’s debate that the hon. Lady cares deeply about our courts and the delivery of justice. I want to assure her that I do, too.
“The consultation that we have just concluded ran last year and had more than 2,100 responses, all of which were carefully reviewed and analysed. I care about reforming our courts—about moving from places that have changed little since Victorian times to a modern, responsive and flexible system fit for the 21st century.
“In the case of Lambeth county court, the court is poorly used; it is only used for around 40 per cent of its available sitting time. “The building is in need of considerable maintenance, including the replacement of air conditioning, lighting and aspects of the heating and hot water system.
“In many respects, it is simply not fit for purpose as a modern and flexible court building.
“Following our meeting we were able to engage in conversation with my officials and she was able to liaise with Southwark council, and there was a very productive dialogue.
“Unfortunately, after Southwark council had carried out a feasibility study, it came to the conclusion that county court work could not be transferred to its premises.
“I am, however, pleased that following the representations that she and others made, and recognising the enormous number of housing possession cases that are at Lambeth county court, we have managed to shift the work two miles down the road to Camberwell Green magistrates court.
“I think that is not unreasonable, in that we have listened, and I would like to think that two miles is not a huge distance.
“Travel time is mentioned regularly, but given that we are moving to a system with video links, travel times will not be longer and in many cases may be shorter because people will be going to a civic centre or police station to give their evidence.
“That will reduce cost and time, and will be a lot more convenient.”
Responding, Helen Hayes said: “My point is about the absence of a detailed plan in the context of a very big decision. “The minister has not responded to my detailed questions about the way in which provision will work at Camberwell and I would be grateful for a written response.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the justice system. “At the moment, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity without a plan.”
(Source: Hansard 1 March 2016)