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Magistrates Courts

Volume 300: debated on Monday 10 November 1997

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If he will make a statement on progress in respect of the rationalisation of the magistrates courts. [13462]

My hon. Friend will be aware that, on 29 October, I made a statement to the House setting out in some detail the Government's plans for the future structure of the magistrates courts service.

Does my hon. Friend agree that closures can be very controversial and sometimes very injurious to local communities? Does he understand that long distances can be involved, that taxis are expensive and that bus services are sometimes hopelessly unreliable? Would he be prepared to meet a group of magistrates to discuss such matters?

I would certainly be willing to discuss such questions with any group of magistrates whom my hon. Friend cared to bring to the Department.

I wholly endorse what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) just said. Is the Minister aware that the Gloucestershire magistrates courts committee is consulting on the closure of Stow-on-the-Wold magistrates court? That so-called consultation is not an open exercise; it consists of consultation among the staff of the various magistrates courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and other officials, but it does not involve members of the public. Will the Minister urgently investigate that situation? Surely it is the public who use the justice system of this country and who will be inconvenienced by the closure of the court who ought to be consulted first, and not afterwards.

I should be delighted to ensure that those local questions are thoroughly investigated, but I emphasise that they are local matters for decision by local magistrates courts committees. The matter only reaches the desk of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in the event of the local paying authority appealing against the decision made locally by the magistrates courts committee.

Is my hon. Friend aware that that was the policy followed under the previous Administration? In my present constituency and my previous constituency, under the previous Administration more than 75 per cent. of our magistrates courts closed, but, at the same time, we saw no improvement whatsoever in the quality of those magistrates courts that remained. Will my hon. Friend give me and the House an assurance that, under his policy, while there will be rationalisation of magistrates courts, there will also be an improvement in existing magistrates courts to serve the best interests not only of the accused, but of victims and witnesses?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. I mentioned in the statement to which I recently referred that it was important that we streamlined and integrated the functions of the various agencies responsible for our criminal justice system. I anticipate, in the light of the statement that I made to the House, that that will be achieved.