We know that there are parts of our court estate that are not fully accessible for magistrates or other court users, and we need to improve this as a matter of priority.
The Magistrates’ Association’s (MA) recent report—Inaccessible courts: A barrier to inclusive justice—has shone a light on the accessibility issues faced by magistrates in England and Wales. I’d like to thank everyone involved in producing this report and in particular the MA’s magistrates with disability network.
I was pleased to see that the report provided positive feedback for HMCTS staff who are seen as helpful in arranging reasonable adjustments. Local court staff and building champions have an important role in working with all judicial office holders and court users to explore accessibility requirements, removing barriers and considering what reasonable adjustments can be made.
What we’re doing to address accessibility now
Our task in hand is complex, because our buildings range from the historic to the modern, and everything in between. This makes the management of our properties particularly challenging.
Most of our buildings were constructed prior to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Notwithstanding this, HMCTS has invested more than £185 million in the two years to April 2023 to maintain our buildings and improve accessibility.
During the year to 31 March 2023, we spent £4.8 million on works under the Equality Act that will benefit all users. These have included replacing lifts in 16 buildings, as well as remodelling Woolwich Crown Court custody suite to improve access, improving lighting at several sites and a range of other works.
Where buildings are not fully accessible, we put reasonable adjustments in place to make sure magistrates and court users can access our courts to meet their individual requirements. This includes directing people to other accessible rooms or buildings and the use of video hearings where appropriate. Each HMCTS region has nominated accessibility hub buildings that enable those with accessibility requirements to attend court.
What we’re doing in the long term
Refurbishment and improvement work has been undertaken at new sites such as Royalty House in Watford and Gun Wharf in Medway. In addition, new replacement courts in Blackpool and the City of London are being developed that will provide modern, accessible facilities that are fit for the future.
The Lord Chancellor has also recently announced that court buildings across the country will benefit from £220 million for essential modernisation and repair work across the next two years, meaning annual investment will increase to £120 million by March 2025.
This additional funding has been agreed by the government, the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals to ensure professional and public court users have the modern and accessible buildings needed to deliver justice.
The improvements to the court estate will ensure those on the frontline of the justice system will benefit from modern, energy efficient heating and cooling systems as well as other projects that will make our buildings accessible and sustainable.
We will work closely with regional delivery directors, judges and magistrates to identify the areas of greatest priority. These improvements will maintain the heritage of the estate while ensuring it is equipped with the latest technology to deliver modern justice, as well as improving accessibility for our court users.
Wider support in place
Anyone who has accessibility requirements, including magistrates, is encouraged to get in touch with the local court or tribunal they are attending at the earliest opportunity to discuss any adjustments they may need.
We were very proud to recently confirm our partnership with the Hidden Disability Sunflower Scheme. This means that sunflower lanyards are now available to collect in all our buildings for court users, staff and judicial office holders and will make it easy for people to discreetly show that they may need additional help or time.
We know there is more for us to do, and frustrations understandably remain. But I am clear that the accessibility and usability of our buildings should and will remain of the utmost importance to HMCTS and is highly prioritised accordingly. Thank you again for giving us your views, which are vital for helping us to slowly, but surely, give you an estate that meets the expectations of the people using it.
Progress will continue to take time, but we are totally aligned with the MA’s vision for ensuring that our buildings across England and Wales are accessible for magistrates and all other people who come to court.