West Oxfordshire CAB; Response to consultation on the provision of Court Services in HMCS Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Thames Valley West Oxfordshire CAB serves a large, rural area. Transport connections to the nearby towns of Oxford and Banbury are good from the main centres of population of Carterton, Witney and Chipping Norton, but a high percentage of the clients that the CAB serves live in small, remote villages, many of which have no daily bus service to either Banbury or Oxford. West Oxfordshire CAB is concerned about the future of access to justice for our clients who are often among the most vulnerable and least mobile social groups. Access to justice is a fundamental human right (Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and it is essential that courts are accessible to the communities that they serve. We recognise that the need for rationalisation of the HMCS estate, especially where court premises are underused, have poor facilities, or lack disability access. However, Witney and Bicester magistrates’ courts, both of which are under review, are integral to the communities that they serve. Neither court is operated on a full time basis. Bicester deals solely with traffic matters, while Witney is mainly used to hear family cases. Nevertheless, their closure may leave limited options for clients who face court hearings. If family court hearings are transferred to Didcot, Oxford or Banbury, the lack of public transport connections could present a major problem, especially for people with small children and no access to a car, and the time taken to travel to these courts could make it very difficult for people struggling with child care. West Oxfordshire CAB believes that if the courts are closed completely, there will be a disproportionately negative impact on clients who live in rural communities, which make up a large part of the district. We welcome the Ministry’s statement that we need to look at alternatives to hearings in court buildings, and for the justice system to become less dependent on court processes. We are concerned, however, that the policy options for achieving this are not being explored further in this current round of consultations. We would like to see, for example, a consideration of using alternative venues for family cases. We would like to see a wider roll-out of available mediation services, in particular access to family mediation services. Impact of proposed changes on West Oxfordshire CAB clients In order to quantify the impact that local magistrates’ court closures might have, the Witney office of West Oxfordshire CAB has conducted a survey among its clients. A total of 61 questionnaires were completed by visitors to the CAB office over a period of two weeks. Of those who responded, 13% said that getting to a court in Oxford or Banbury would be easy, 49% said it would be quite easy, and 38% said it would be not at all easy. Of those for whom it would be not at all easy, 11 live in villages with poor transport connections to destinations other than Witney. Of the others, 10 are in Witney and one in Carterton. For the Witney residents the cost of transport was cited as a problem. Other reasons given were difficulties with child care, and the time taken to get to and from a court. For the Carterton resident health problems were cited. 8 people had needed to attend the court in Witney in the past. Of those, 3 live in Witney and 5 in outlying villages. General comments on the proposals for the future provision of magistrates’ court services in Oxfordshire, including alternatives Although, as stated above, Witney and Bicester are already operating on a very limited part-time basis, the possible transfer of family cases to a court in Banbury, Oxford or Didcot is a matter for concern. While we recognise that the court building in Witney is mostly empty and unused and that the land and/or building could be put to better use if it were to be closed and the cases transferred, we believe that it would serve the local community if hearings could be held in another building, for example in one of the buildings owned by the District Council. Transport to Oxford and Banbury often depends on people being able to get first to those towns where there are bus or train services (Chipping Norton, Witney, Carterton, Charlbury, Eynsham, and a few villages on the way) but the majority of villages have no direct connection. Conversations with local magistrates confirm that if an alternative venue in Witney could be found, that would be viewed as preferable to the transfer of the court to a distant location. Conclusion Our client enquiry has confirmed the view of West Oxfordshire CAB that for many, particularly those living in rural communities, poor transport connections mean that they could be disadvantaged by the closure of the court in Witney. Although West Oxfordshire is generally an affluent area, there are pockets of rural poverty and the withdrawal of all access to justice particularly family services in Witney, could add to the general burden of disadvantage experienced by vulnerable people living in rural communities. Our preference would be for family services to be retained in Witney even if the court building is closed, and for other buildings in Witney to be considered as venues for family court hearings.