The Magistrates’ Association today published a landmark report on the accessibility of magistrates’ courts across England and Wales. Based on a survey of more than a third of magistrates’ courts, the report has revealed that a largely inaccessible court estate threatens to undermine the efficiency of courts and equal access to justice. The membership body for magistrates in England and Wales has made six recommendations for the Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service that it believes will help improve accessibility, court capacity, and judicial diversity.
The charity’s report is the first on-the-ground study into the accessibility of magistrates’ courts. With over 90 per cent of all criminal cases being resolved in magistrates’ court, the criminal justice system in England and Wales relies heavily on the commitment of magistrates. The association’s survey of 57 court buildings paints a deeply concerning picture of a dilapidated court estate in which judicial areas are frequently less accessible than public ones and disabled magistrates are often excluded as a result. Restrictions on where magistrates can sit or where trials can take place not only adversely impact court capacity and efficiency, but also undermine the government’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the magistracy.
Three quarters of courts surveyed (75 per cent) were found to be inadequately accessible, with seven courts entirely inaccessible for disabled magistrates. Almost two thirds (63 per cent) were found to be in need of improvement due to accessibility failings such as a lack of wheelchair access throughout the building, an absence of accessible toilets, a lack of functioning hearing loops in courtrooms, and poor or no signage in the building.
In nearly a third of courts surveyed (30 per cent), disabled magistrates had been restricted from sitting in certain courtrooms or even entire buildings due to accessibility failings and unexplained delays in repairing vital facilities like lifts. This, in turn, had prevented them from undertaking certain types of work, such as remands or crown court appeals.
In the context of significant court backlogs, the Magistrates’ Association highlights that 305 sitting days were lost in the magistrates’ courts due to planned and unplanned maintenance in 2022. It states that anything preventing magistrates from performing their role must be rectified to ensure that cases can be heard and timely justice delivered.
The accessibility of court buildings is intrinsically linked to encouraging greater judicial diversity. The report reveals a disconnect between the government’s accessibility strategies and policies and the on-the-ground reality in courts. It suggests that by failing to proactively ensure buildings are accessible for all court users, the government is not only disregarding its duties, but also actively undermining the effectiveness of recruitment campaigns that aim to increase diversity and inclusion in the magistracy. A lack of accessible court buildings could, for example, disincentivise applications to the magistracy from disabled people. The failure to maintain accessibility features or accommodate disabled magistrates’ needs also threatens to severely damage morale and has led to resignations.
As part of its research, the Magistrates’ Association also surveyed and interviewed members of its magistrates with disabilities network to capture their experiences of being disabled magistrates, asking for reasonable adjustments, and court building accessibility.
David Rose, Chair of the association’s magistrates with disabilities network, said:
“As a disabled magistrate with almost 30 years of service, I have direct experience of being excluded from numerous court rooms due to wholly inadequate access. Looking back, it would have been easy to throw in the towel, but this negative experience has motivated me to be an advocate for change. This report is a significant step forward in being transparent about accessibility and sets out of a strong case for improvements for disabled magistrates and the wider court-user community.”
The report recommends that the Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service invest in the courts estate, identify and are transparent about current issues, embed accessibility into policy and practice, guarantee accessibility and communicate better with disabled magistrates.
While the report focuses on access for disabled magistrates, the association emphasises that the need for universal accessibility in court buildings is important for everyone given the high likelihood that we will all experience transient or permanent disability or have access needs at some stage of our lives.
The full report can be found here.