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Court Closures (Essex)

Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Clelland.]

10.41 pm

When I first decided on this debate, I thought that only the county of Essex was subject to court closures of such magnitude, but, as we have heard in recent weeks and, indeed, this afternoon, magistrates courts are closing throughout the country. It could be said that the magistrates court system, which has evolved over centuries, is being systematically dismantled. That policy is driven by the Treasury and it will lead to fewer, larger courts and to almost a production-line distribution of justice. That is not what local justice is all about.

Essex courts have suffered cuts totalling £1 million in the past three years, on a budget of £017 million. The evidence shows that the object of the exercise is to reduce the number of courts in the county to five, although Essex has one of the largest populations of any shire county.

What is the object of the exercise? The consultation process has shown that everyone is against the court closures save the Crown Prosecution Service and the magistrates courts organisers. In other words, this is all about the convenience of the bureaucrats rather than the distribution of justice in local communities.

It is a case of one side of Government saving money—or so it seems—but that is more than outweighed by the costs to other aspects of Government and to the community at large. The move is also contrary to the Government's policies on traffic reduction. It may seem strange to mention that while on the subject of court closures, but it is a serious question and it needs to be addressed because people will have to travel further.

The Government's policies of greater police presence and being tough on crime are being undermined by magistrates courts committees shutting courts. MCCs are, of course, quangos. In Essex, the quango has seven members, unelected and unrepresentative of the county. They are not there to respond to the wishes of hon. Members across the political divide or local councils. All those involved in the life of our magistrates courts are opposed to the closures, but the MCC meeting behind closed doors—so much for open government and accountability—made the decision to close.

I invite the Minister to comment on who knows best about the court system in the county of Essex: those who have to be there—solicitors, probation officers and, above all, the police—or the bureaucrats who run the system. We acknowledge that there are financial constraints on the public sector, but to save money on the one hand the public purse will pay far more on the other for a worse service. Except for the Crown Prosecution Service, whose reduced staffing will be helped by having fewer courts, nobody supports the closures envisaged in Essex.

The chief constable of Essex, Mr. John Burrow, wrote to me saying:
"I trust that you can bring to the attention of the House that this is not only a case where saving in one area of the criminal justice system will result in significant increased expenditure in other areas, but also there is a very real issue of the loss of local justice across large swathes of the County."
Colchester is not going to lose its courts, at least not on current plans, but it will become a centre of courts for the whole of north Essex and further afield. In time, that will lead to the merger of the magistrates benches and to the loss of the local knowledge of local magistrates of local cases. Magistrates in Colchester will adjudicate cases from Clacton and Braintree, and vice versa.

The Minister noted:
"The magistracy deals with about 97 per cent. of criminal offices prosecuted in England and Wales. It also has important family and local licensing jurisdictions."
He also referred to the
"efficient and effective administration of the courts".—[Official Report, 29 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 901.]
That is what it is all about. It is to do with the bureaucracy of the administration of the magistrates courts rather than fairness to the people involved.

There has been a range of media criticism. The courts at Halstead, Castle Hedingham and Southminster have been closed. Now Braintree, Clacton and Saffron Walden are under attack. Does the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) wish to intervene?

The offer was there.

When the Minister replies, will he dissociate himself from the words of the director of central services at Essex magistrates court, Mr. Richard Hawkes? He said:
"There's been a lot of wild talk but we have had no evidence to support the claims"
of those opposing the closures. Among those who have opposed the closures is the chief constable of Essex, who stated:
"The decision will greatly inconvenience the victims of crime and witnesses who are required to attend court … but more importantly it will in the long-term undermine the very concept of local justice as there are now large areas of Essex that are without a local court."
That is what is happening in a county that has one of the largest populations in the country.

This afternoon, other hon. Members expressed their concern because their local magistrates courts were to close. It is clear that the Government are pursuing a systematic closure scheme throughout England and Wales. Such closures fly in the face of the opposition of local Members, county and district councillors, members of the legal profession, the police and public opinion.

The closure of a magistrates court in any town means a loss of the concept of local justice. It also has large cost implications for the police force because of increased travelling expenses and increased overtime payments. The greatest cost, however, is that an officer is no longer available for ordinary operational duty on the streets of the home town because he or she has to travel to a distant court.

The hon. Gentleman has quoted a suggestion from those who seek to close courts. A spokesman has said on BBC Radio Essex that the majority of those who appear before magistrates plead guilty. Surely that strikes at the argument of those who want to close those courts. People are entitled to justice within their locality and to be judged by those who know that locality.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Evidence suggests that some people are pleading guilty, by default, because it is a cheaper option than pleading their innocence at a faraway court. I do not believe that anyone would want to support such a system of justice.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for inviting fellow Essex Members to take part in the debate and I associate myself with much of what he has said. In particular, removing the means of justice from the local community hardly seems to be in keeping with the message that everyone in the House wants to send to local communities about justice being at the heart of each of our communities.

The closure of such courts will not lead to super-enhanced services and better courts in the localities where they will remain. We will be left with the same courts, but they will be faced with additional strain and inadequate facilities. That can lead only to further congestion and delay in the process of justice. Although we have sympathy with the magistrates courts committee trying to live within its means, I put it to the Minister that that will hardly enhance the objective on law and order.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

We are witnessing production-line justice, which is not in keeping with what we would all like to see. The court closures will greatly inconvenience the victims of crime, and witnesses who are required to attend court. Such closures will destroy the concept of local justice according to which local magistrates make decisions on local cases.

Will the Minister make the quangos take proper account of public opinion? It is not good enough for one part of government to try to save money when, as a consequence, the police and society will end up worse off financially. The chief constable has said that the police service in Essex will be poorer because of the closures, and he knows his patch better than anyone in the House.

For the sake of Essex and all the other localities about which we are now hearing, I urge the Minister to rethink seriously whether it is in the interests of the Government's policies on crime, traffic reduction and overall spending to cut magistrates courts committees' funding so that they, in turn, reduce the number of courts in each locality. In the fulness of time, we in Essex will be left with five super-courts and a pick-and-mix magistrates bench. I urge the Minister to reconsider the whole concept of the systematic dismantling of the magistrates courts in this country.

10.54 pm

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) for raising this topic, which is one of general concern in the county of Essex. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I draw your attention and that of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as partner in a firm of solicitors.

I have recently met my hon. Friend the Minister, by way of leading a delegation to discuss with him the closure of Braintree magistrates court, and he will remember the local feeling expressed on that occasion. The delegation included the leader of Braintree district council, which is unanimously opposed to the closure of the local court. More significantly, the leader of Witham town council, which would be the recipient town were Braintree magistrates court to close, also endorses the opposition to the closure. The reason for that is that towns need local justice, as the hon. Member for Colchester said.

The other member of the delegation was the chief constable of Essex who, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister recalls, expressed strong objection to the closure, not only of Braintree magistrates court but of courts in Clacton and Saffron Walden.

I wish to raise a matter connected with Clacton magistrates court, but first I should declare that my husband is a magistrate in Essex. Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a proposal in 1995 to refurbish Clacton court, which was turned down by the previous Government? Does he agree that it would be better to have refurbished the court then than to see it close now?

I am grateful for that information, of which I was not aware. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's remarks.

The chief constable of Essex was strongly of the view that any saving achieved in the magistrates service would pass the burden to the police, and the point was endorsed by the leader of Braintree district council. Consequent on the closure of Braintree county court, cases for possession and other district council cases are being heard in the magistrates court building. Were that to close, the estimated cost to the district council of moving on to Witham or Colchester would be about £12,000, which almost matches the anticipated savings of £14,000 from the closure of Braintree courthouse.

In closing, I am pleased to note that Essex county council has lodged an appeal and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that appeal sympathetically in due course. I urge him to seek to maintain local justice and civic pride and to save public money.

10.57 pm

This is an important topic and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I am sure that all those hon. Members present are delighted that the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) has initiated tonight's debate. The considerable interest that hon. Members have shown illustrates the importance of magistrates courts, their courthouses and the organisation of magistrates courts committees, as was indicated recently when I set out the Government's policy in that respect.

It is necessary at the outset to remind the hon. Member for Colchester that the Essex magistrates courts committee, in common with every other magistrates courts committee in the country, is solely responsible for the effective and efficient administration of the magistrates courts in its area. It is for magistrates courts committees, in consultation with the relevant paying authority—in this case, Essex county council—to determine how many courthouses and what other accommodation is needed locally. That is why it is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that there is anything systematic about court closures or that there is a policy in the Treasury or anywhere else to call for closures. This is a matter solely within the responsibility of local magistrates courts committees. Clearly, when resources are tight, it is the responsibility of the local committee to manage within available resources.

Whether a court should close is in the first instance a matter for the local magistrates courts committee—it is a local decision based on the committee's estimate of the needs of the local community. The only role that the Lord Chancellor has in these matters is to determine an appeal in the event that one is made. That is the limit of his jurisdiction.

Surely the Government's other role is in deciding on the available resources. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) has already said, the savings that the Government have got from the magistrates courts are being wasted in the policing budget. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should be looking at a more global accounting system.

I intend to deal with resources in due course. The hon. Member for Colchester said that the removal of a magistrates court from any town also removed the concept of local justice. I invite him to think again about such an extravagant statement. Many towns across England and Wales have not had these courts for a very long time now; even in Essex, a number of towns have not had magistrates courts for some time. It is necessary for the local magistrates courts committee to make judgments about where best to locate its courthouses. Only in the event of that decision being challenged by the paying authority—Essex county council or any other paying authority—does the matter become the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor.

Essex magistrates courts committee made a formal determination to close Braintree, Clacton and Saffron Walden magistrates courts from 1 April 1998. There has been a lengthy debate this evening on why they should remain open. The paying authority has appealed to the Lord Chancellor against the closures, and those appeals have yet to be determined. That is why at this stage I cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of closing the courts.

I can, however, explain the procedures in place for each appeal. Each appeal against the decision of a magistrates courts committee to close a magistrates court is dealt with entirely on its own merits. I hope therefore to be able to give hon. Members a reasonable idea of some of the considerations that will ultimately be taken into account in determining these questions. They are the provision in the courts of modern facilities, such as facilities for the disabled; security arrangements for violent offenders; and separate waiting areas for defendants and witnesses.

The Government are particularly concerned to ensure the provision of courtrooms best suited to enable cases to be listed in a manner that will achieve the Government's aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. We also take account of the need for any renovations to bring the courthouse in question up to a modern standard. We are also aware of the distance people have to travel, of the cost of that travel, and of the time taken to complete the return journey.

The Government are committed, however, to the better distribution and use of the considerable public resources that are allocated to magistrates courts committees as an integral part of the process of delivering justice. We want to provide a modern system of justice with well-equipped and secure courtrooms, to reduce delay in the time taken for cases to proceed through those courts, and thus to honour our manifesto commitments. Moreover, we are committed to remaining within the spending ceilings that we have inherited for the next two years, so I am unable to say that there will be any more money for the delivery of justice.

The real answer to the point about resources is that resources for the criminal justice system and legal aid inevitably have to compete with resources for education, the health service and other areas of Government spending that attract public support more readily. That is why the Government are committed to radical reform in the delivery of legal aid—to ensure that the Department that I represent can confidently compete for scarce taxpayers' money when the Government determine their spending priorities. Obviously, however, there may well be scope for drawing more value from what is, overall, a very large budget. The existence of a large number of small courts with inadequate facilities and limited potential to reallocate work and speed through decisions is hardly the efficient and forward-looking picture that any Government would like to see.

I remind hon. Members that there has been an extensive formal consultation process, carried out by Essex magistrates courts committee, which chose to consult more widely than the relevant statute requires.

The hon. Gentleman's definition of "consult" is obviously different from the one that I am used to. To consult does not necessarily mean to agree with all the arguments advanced. Consultation means giving people the opportunity to advance arguments; whether those arguments are accepted is a matter for the authority consulting.

Essex magistrates courts committee invited comments on its proposals to close the three courthouses from all the local Members of Parliament, from the district councils and from the benches concerned, in addition to carrying out its formal statutory consultation, as legally required, with Essex county council. I understand that before that consultation took place the Essex magistrates courts committee considered how to make the best use of its accommodation, by assessing how many courtrooms it needed to meet its workload requirements. Apparently, the committee concluded that it has more courtrooms than it needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, I had the considerable advantage of meeting him and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) during a recent visit to the Essex magistrates courts committee. In addition, I have received a deputation with the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst). Each of those hon. Members advanced powerful arguments in defence of their local courts. Indeed, I was most impressed by the representations that I received during my visit to Essex. No Member of Parliament could do more to set out effectively the interests of their constituents.

In addition, I have received numerous letters from all parties interested in the future of these courthouses, setting out the difficulties that the proposed closures might cause. I must reassure the House that all those representations will be fully taken into account before a final decision is taken, and each appeal will be considered separately and on its merits.

Undoubtedly, one of the factors that will weigh heavily in the minds of those taking the decision is that work load is not the only factor to be taken into account. We must take into account the cost of running and maintaining the court, the standard of the accommodation, the length of any lease and the ability to renew it and the issue of rehousing. However, the costs and practical implications of running any court must be measured against the role that the court plays in providing a service to the public, and the effect and implications of providing an alternative for current users.

Leaving aside the very considerable costs of legal aid, the work of this country's principal courts and tribunals cost the taxpayer almost £800 million last year. It is our duty to ensure that money is well spent and well accounted for.

I should emphasise that the Government are especially anxious to reduce delays. That is one of our key manifesto pledges. It is important that courthouses are located and suited to enable cases to be listed in a way that helps to achieve our aim of reducing delays in the criminal justice system.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.