19 June 2001

Q4 Alison Halford:

What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government on the issue of reducing county courts in Wales? (OAQ11999)

The First Minister:

The Assembly is being consulted on the Court Service’s consultation document on modernising the civil courts and we are formulating a response. The Court Service is part of the Lord Chancellor’s Department and is not a devolved matter, however, it is consulting us because of the impact on public services in Wales.

Alison Halford:

I understand that the plan is to reduce the number of courts from 23 to 19 over the next 18 months. Therefore, are you considering any action to ensure that the victims of crime, witnesses and their families, are not burdened by travel concerns at a distressing time in their lives? Are you content that the hearing centres offer an appropriate and effective replacement in our increasingly litigious society?

The First Minister:

It is important, in terms of access to justice and value for money, that the Court Service should consider whether it is spending money correctly. In future it will offer its customers the choice of communicating via telephone, e-mail, internet or electronic data interchange, rather than exclusively face to face. We are responding to the consultation document and have been given additional time in which to do so. You made a crucial point about witnesses attending court. One thing that destroys faith in the justice system, is when witnesses, who may be going through incredible personal trauma, are messed about. They could even be in fear of revenge attacks from the people that they may help to put inside. I would find regrettable anything that would mess witnesses about when they are going through such trauma. That would undermine the entire principle of justice. There are societies in the world where witnesses simply do not turn up at court for fear of being taken out of the system.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas:

In response to question 1, you mentioned that people in Wales do not have the same access to transport as those in England. Do you accept, in the context of closing county courts and magistrates’ courts, that defendants also have a fundamental human right of access to courts? Will you try to safeguard that in your discussions with the relevant department in Westminster?

The First Minister:

That is the principle, of course. However, you cannot deny the Court Service the right to examine its work and to consider whether the courts, which it has inherited from previous governments and services, are in the right locations.

William Graham:

Will you redouble your efforts in respect of local justice following your remarks today? You will know that the further people have to travel to courts, the less likely they are to attend. Will you ensure that your representation will be listened to and acted upon?

The First Minister:

I can give no guarantee that Lord Irvine will do exactly as I instruct him on behalf of the Assembly. Nevertheless, we will make strong pleas that some special aspects of Welsh social, geographical, cultural and linguistic circumstances are taken into account when they make their final recommendations.

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