The past decade has seen the government follow a programme of reforms designed to improve the courthouse process for all users.
However, while accessibility was a factor in these reforms, the closure of courthouses disproportionately affected people with accessibility issues. Campaigners also say that ease of access hasn’t improved significantly enough.
Specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp sought to demonstrate how these reforms – and the general courthouse landscape in Britain – affect court users with a variety of accessibility issues. The new research assessed 444 courthouses in England, Wales and Scotland on 11 accessibility criteria, namely the availability of:
• Disabled parking
• Accessible toilets
• Hearing loop systems
• Interview rooms
• Baby changing facilities
• Video conference facilities
• Wireless internet access
• Witness support facilities
• And offering wheelchair access and allowing assistant dogs into the building
The main finding of the research was that only 2% of courthouses across Britain were able to meet all 11 of the criteria listed above. This is a total of eight courthouses, three of which are based in the South West of England:
• Aberystwyth Justice Centre (Wales)
• Leeds Combined Court Centre (North East England)
• Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Civil and Family Courts) (North West England)
• Plymouth Combined Court (South West England)
• Taunton Magistrates’ Court, Tribunals and Family Hearing Centre (South West England)
• Weston-Super-Mare County Court and Family Court (South West England)
• Wigan and Leigh Magistrates’ Court (North West England)
• Worcester Combined Court (Midlands)
Diving into the different aspects of accessibility uncovers some failings in Britain’s courthouses.
Over three-quarters of courthouses (84%) are not fully accessible for wheelchair users.
People who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, or suffer from chronic pain or fatigue, may find it difficult to navigate courthouses. Particularly so if the courthouse is large or is made up of several floors, requiring both time and effort that could become exhausting. Not to mention any lack of availability of functional lifts if hearings are taking place on upper floors.
Unfortunately, the new research found that only 16% of courthouses in England, Scotland and Wales are fully accessible, offering wheelchair access, disabled parking and accessible toilets:
• Only 8% of courthouses in Scotland
• Only 29% of courthouses in Wales
• Only 15% of courthouses in England
Looking regionally at England, the South West leads the way, with 30% of its courthouses being fully accessible:
• 30% of courthouses in the South West
• 19% in the North West
• 14% in the South East
• 13% in the Midlands
• 11% in the North East
• 10% in London
No courthouses in the East of England or Yorkshire and the Humber offer all three forms of accessibility. It’s important for the government, as well as local councils, to make a concerted, combined effort to ensure all courthouses are adapted for people with accessibility issues. When over three-quarters of courthouses are not fully accessible, there’s a real danger that justice may be being denied – or made harder to achieve – for people with accessibility issues.
On a brighter note, the research found that almost 8 in 10 courthouses do offer hearing loops or hearing aid systems and note that they accept assistance dogs:
• 7 in 10 (69%) courthouses in Scotland
• Almost 8 in 10 (77%) courthouses in England
• Over 8 in 10 (82%) courthouses in Wales
A deep-dive into the different regions of England show that the South West and the South East lead the way in offering hearing loops or welcoming guide dogs, at 87% and 83% respectively. For other regions:
• 81% in the North East
• 79% in the North West
• 78% in the Midlands
• 65% in Greater London
• 25% in the East of England
Fortunately, most courthouses appear equipped to facilitate those with hearing or sight issues. It’s important that courthouses are consistent with this and roll out improvements to buildings that are not properly equipped. They will also need to ensure that they provide clear information so people with sight or hearing issues are aware of the services available to them.
Only 22% of courthouses offer witness support and/or quiet rooms for people with mental health issues.
Going to court is often a stressful experience, particularly as it’s often part of a wider, painful process of coming to terms with and seeking redress for an injustice. It’s not surprising that the experience is even tougher for people with mental health issues.
Some courthouses in Britain offer witness support for vulnerable parties, or provide a quiet room for people to relax in if they need to. However, only 22% of British courthouses currently provide these options, meaning people with “hidden disabilities” aren’t well supported by the legal system.
• Only 22% of British courthouses provide witness support
• Only 12% of British courthouses offer a witness suite or separate waiting room
• Only 7% of British courthouses provide quiet rooms
Conversely, people with children are supported by facilities in courthouses, despite parents typically being discouraged from bringing their children to court. 64% of British courthouses offer baby changing facilities, typically incorporated into the disabled toilets.
• 66% of courthouses in England offer baby changing facilities
• 63% of courthouses in Wales
• 62% of courthouses in Scotland
• However, only 10% of British courthouses offer a dedicated children’s room.
A brighter future for courthouses
While some courthouses do make the effort to offer facilities to support vulnerable people, and people with caring needs, more must be done to improve what’s on offer across the country. Those who work within the court system – from the government, to courthouse building managers and judges and solicitors – need to make a collective effort to help improve access to justice for all.
Individuals should ensure they are aware of the needs of the vulnerable, as this is the only way they can truly appreciate and understand how to improve. From making improvements to court buildings, to providing dedicated spaces for vulnerable parties, it’s important to make a commitment to pioneer change.
The piece was created based on the experiences of staff at Bolt Burdon Kemp, the feedback they’ve had from their diverse pool of clients, as well as insight from charity partners.