On Tuesday 11 June, Victoria Prentis, Member of Parliament for North Oxfordshire, attended the Justice Select Committee’s evidence session on its inquiry into Court and Tribunal reform programme. The purpose of the session was to hear from people with first-hand experience of court reforms in relation to family justice and administrative justice/tribunals. The panel brought together a leading solicitor and barrister practising in family law, and a representative of the national charity, Women’s Aid.
Victoria highlighted the impact of court closures, following the closure of Banbury Magistrates’ Court earlier this year, and Bicester Magistrates’ in 2016. Since the most recent changes in Oxfordshire, she has been in regular contact with the Ministry of Justice, outlining concerns about accessing courts and justice, particularly for those living in the north of the county. Many are aware of the unpredictable journey times between Banbury and Oxford.
During the evidence session, Victoria asked witnesses (Frances Judd QC, Chair, Family Law Bar Association; Jo Edwards, Chair, Resolution’s Family Law Reform Group; Dr Jenny Birchall, Women’s Aid) about the pressure on courts in Oxfordshire following the closure in Banbury, travel times and accessibility. It was clear that travel times are not acceptable for court users, particularly in family courts. The cost, practicality and complexity of travel is a barrier to vulnerable people, who need to access family courts. Witnesses also touched upon domestic abuse victims who may have fled to escape abuse, and no longer live near the support of family and friends.
Since the closure of Banbury Magistrates’ Court, Victoria arranged a meeting with local magistrates and Ministers to discuss the impact of closures, including the possibility of a mobile court system. As part of the evidence session, she also asked panellists about the possibility of mobile family courts and was pleased that they agreed it would be worth looking into. They highlighted the importance of having a local hub as long as it provides security, IT infrastructure and Judge availability.
After the session, Victoria commented: “It was important to find out more about the impact of changes on my constituents. The closure of Bicester and Banbury Magistrates’ Courts is clearly putting pressure on the system, and availability in Oxfordshire. I’m very worried about vulnerable users who are having to travel to Oxford from the North of the county and will continue to pursue the possibility of mobile courts.”