Tunbridge Wells County Court and Family Court will be closed by the end of the year the government has announced, in a move described as ‘devastating’ by one family lawyer.
Situated on London Road, the County Court and Family Court are facing the axe by December following a consultation into the viability of 91 courts across England and Wales.
The government claims it will save £27 million by closing the courts and will result in a one-off windfall of £40 million to be ‘reinvested’ into the justice system.
The operating costs for the Tunbridge Wells courts were approximately £468,000 in 2014-15.
Local law firms have reacted with dismay to the announcement, claiming their warnings about the negative impact on the town have been ignored during the consultation process that was launched in July.
Kirstie Law, a partner at Thomson Snell & Passmore who specialises in family mediation, divorce and cases involving children, said: “It is devastating and really bad news for local people which will result in a reduced access to justice.
“It is very disappointing the people of Tunbridge Wells will no longer have access to a local court.
“This is despite representation from the local law society, and many solicitors, to local MPs.”
Consultation documents reveal that a total of 41 responses were made from representatives ranging from solicitors to magistrates and members of the judiciary.
Of these, only two were supportive of the proposal, with one being neutral.
Mrs Law said there was no sense in moving the majority of the court’s current workload to Maidstone Combined Court and Hastings County Court, questioning whether either one is accessible enough for local people.
She added: “The reality is that there is going to be significant additional cost and time involved in order to access justice.
“This is not just the potential time spent travelling to and from court, for example, in Maidstone, Medway or London, but also the time that it is likely to take to get a hearing as a result of the increased pressures on these courts.
“No thought seems to have been given to how the most vulnerable will be affected, including victims of child abduction and domestic violence.
“We will never get it back I fear although it will become apparent very quickly that it is needed.”
The consultation in respect of Tunbridge Wells states: “HM Courts & Tribunals Service acknowledge and accept that some people will need to travel further to reach their nearest court for the majority of people.
“We are mindful of the infrequency with which people need to attend court and the small proportion of people who would use public transport to reach court.
“It is accepted that there will be additional travel time in respect of journeys by public transport, however that in itself cannot be a reason for the retention of this court.”
It also states that the use of new digital technology systems could be used to communicate with the court online and expansion of video linking removing the necessity of some users attending court.
Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: “The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, but in the digital age I am confident we have measures in place to ensure access to justice is not diminished.”
Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark said: “I understand that some local users of the court will be disappointed by this decision.
“However, the Minister does recommend that alternative local facilities in Tunbridge Wells for court hearings are found – for example using council buildings – which would be a big help in minimising the need to travel outside the town.”
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “We are disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with the closure of so many courts.
“The majority of these closures will make it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families. We need to look through the detail of the government’s revised plans for closing Tunbridge Wells County and Family Court to ensure that access to justice problems are mitigated.
“Combined with increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, many of the closures will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access legal advice and the justice system.”
Jonathan Smithers is a partner at Tunbridge Wells law firm CooperBurnett.