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Legal charity raises concerns for justice as local court is slated for closure

 

Local legal charity South West London Law Centres (SWLLC) is warning that the closure of Wandsworth County Court, announced today, will adversely affect the ability of local people to ‘have their day in court’ and get justice.

 

The Justice Secretary announced the closure of Wandsworth County Court along with six other courts across the country, following a consultation earlier this year. This wave of closures comes after over 120 courts were closed and sold off over the previous seven years. In their place, the government is pursuing a ‘modernisation’ drive of the remaining court estate, intended to deliver further savings through staff layoffs, and to move most interaction with the courts online.

 

The closure of the Wandsworth court is announced only several months after the closure of another south London site, Lambeth County Court. Wandsworth services will be moved to other County Courts: further out to Kingston, and further in to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch.

 

SWLLC offers housing law assistance to local residents through its four offices. It also runs housing solicitor duty desks in south London courts including Wandsworth, Croydon and Kingston, where they help some 1,700 households a year avoid losing their homes. The charity’s significant expertise in this line of work gives rise to serious concerns about the effects of the court closure.

 

Firstly, the Law Centre sees many people pushed to the brink of home loss because failures in the benefits system leave them with little to no money and facing impossible choices. They would be asked to travel further away and at greater expense they already cannot afford in order to defend their homes.

Client services manager Shyam Popat said: “Planning based on Google Maps really does not tell you the whole story. In just one day recently our housing solicitors helped three tenants, all women with children, with combined rent arrears of £14,000, and each with a bailiff appointment. Are these women really expected to travel as far as Shoreditch to not get evicted? We already know that the Shoreditch court is overstretched following the transfer of Lambeth cases there. What kind of justice can we expect when the workload grows further with Wandsworth cases?”

 

Secondly, the Law Centre fears that the court closure hitting the most vulnerable members of its community hardest, leading to a rise in homelessness that would burden local councils, which are already struggling with a shortage of social housing. Popat adds: “The Ministry of Justice said that the cost of travel was reasonable because attending court is a rare event. But if this event comes when you are already behind on rent, and the stakes for you are so high, many people would end up not attending and would just lose their home.”

 

In addition, the closure of the local court is expected to affect local charitable services, like those offered by the Law Centre. Popat explains: “We are well established locally, with strong local knowledge and ties with other support services. Local judges and court staff know to refer people to us so they can get help earlier, or follow-on assistance to sort out underlying problems with debt or benefits. A remote court would not have the benefit of all this, and it is mainly people on the brink who would lose out and fall through the net.”


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