Closing Suffolk magistrates’ courts has“undermined” the justice system, a report claims.

The University of Suffolk’s Access to Justice report, published today, examined the impact of court closures in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft in 2016.

With just Ipswich magistrates’ court left, the report found closures aggravated problems with the justice system – leading to non-attendances of defendants and lowering staff morale.

The report, commissioned by Suffolk Public Sector Leaders’ group, also found costs for some defendants, witnesses and advocates to attend Ipswich magistrates’ court, had doubled.

One defence advocate said clients in west Suffolk waited to be arrested on a warrant as they could not afford to travel to Ipswich. “This is the reality of centralising courts and the demise of local justice,” they added.

Another said when people did not trust the system to be efficient “they would not respect the law”.

The report noted the increase in digital technologies meant more cases were heard without people physically present. It also found closures had brought efficiencies to Ipswich magistrates’ court and benefits for the Probation Service and Crown Prosecution Service. However, defendants, defence witnesses, and defence advocates experienced more negative impacts than the prosecution side.

Olumide Adisa, who undertook the research, said geographic accessibility to the courts was a “significant barrier to access to justice”. “Access to justice is a fundamental human right,” Dr Adisa added. “Yet, this would be the first commissioned academic study into the impact of the court closures on access to justice. This commissioned research, funded by the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders group signifies a strong commitment to understanding the impacts of the court closures in Suffolk using robust evidence.”

The University’s former Pro-Vice Chancellor, Simon Hallsworth added: “Everyone has the right to justice. Or so we once thought. Recent changes to the court system however suggest that justice is not a universal good everyone can access. “

Jennie Jenkins, Suffolk Public Sector Leaders’ chairman, said the research findings would be used to improve access to justice. “We will be developing and implementing a viable and sustainable solution fit for the 21st century, which we hope can be replicated nationwide,” she added. It is important to note that court closures aren’t only affecting our county so we hope we can be something of a pioneer in suggesting positive changes to neighbouring counties.”

‘We continually monitor Ipswich magistrates’ court’

The Government department responsible for closing the courts said the decision followed public consultation and only those that were “underused, dilapidated” or close to another court were considered.

“We continually monitor Ipswich Magistrates’ Court to understand the impact of closures in the county and are pleased that it is performing well,” a spokesman for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) added.

“HMCTS also retains a court presence in Bury St Edmunds where civil, family and tribunals work is heard and a video link is available for victims and witnesses to give evidence in criminal trials.”

HMCTS said it was investing more than £1 billion to reform and modernise the justice system – “to deliver swifter justice and provider better value for the taxpayer”. Changes include making better use of technology including the use of video links.