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Magistrates Courts

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2003

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When he next expects to meet representatives of the magistracy to discuss recent court closures. [114233]

Magistrates courts closures are a matter for local magistrates courts committees. Where there are appeals, I am always happy to meet representatives of the local magistracy before taking any decision. I have received no requests to meet magistrates about courts that have already closed.

A few years ago, there were active magistrates courts in my constituency at Fakenham and Hunstanton, but they are now being concentrated in King's Lynn. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for local justice to be seen to be done, and that for that to happen courts need to be close to the community? Surely, at a time when there is a need to restrain and control the increasing numbers of hooligans who are terrorising communities, there should be no further closures of magistrates courts.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is for local magistrates courts committees to take decisions about the courts estate. They have always done so, under previous Governments and under this Government. In the last year of his party's Government, there were 21 court closures; last year, there were six. It is right that magistrates courts committees should take decisions on the basis of a wide range of issues, including not only geographical access, but disability access, the availability of appropriate facilities for victims, and the state of the courtrooms.

Is it not the case that there is a continuing shrinkage not only of the number of local courts, but of the number of lay magistrates to serve in them? Several schemes for the closure of local magistrates courts are in abeyance, awaiting the outcome of the Courts Bill that is passing through Parliament. If the Government are successful in getting that Bill through Parliament, will the Minister give an undertaking that she will make it Government policy to maintain local, and particularly rural, magistrates courts; and will she give instructions to that effect to Her Majesty's inspectorate of courts administration, which is established by the Bill, so that it can inspect for locality and ease of access for those who need to use the courts?

It is important that decisions about local courts be taken in local areas. It is important not only to weigh up local needs, but to consider the facilities that are available for victims and other factors. As the hon. Gentleman will know, under the current arrangements appeals come to Ministers, and I recently overturned a decision to close Kingston courtrooms. I will always take decisions on the merits of the case. For example, unified administration offers the opportunity for the Court Service and magistrates courts to work together, which may increase the viability of courthouses in certain areas that are able to share facilities, but do not do so.

The Magistrates Association, of which I am a member, welcomes the recent Government amendment to the Courts Bill, which will require direct consultation with local benches on court reorganisation and other matters. Does the Minister believe that that will slow the steady flow of courthouse closures; and can she update the House on the continuing struggle between her Department and the abolitionist Home Office, which seems to dream of low-cost courthouses in remote regional locations that are utterly detached from the communities that they serve?

In fact, I can update my hon. Friend on the fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office have been working together on proposals around community justice centres, which are outlined in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. It is important that local communities feel that they have a strong stake in the local criminal justice system and the courts in their area. He is right that we have tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to require consultation with magistrates. I am aware from discussing the small number of appeals that have come to me about magistrates courts closures that the local bench often makes representations, even though the magistrates courts committee and the committee of magistrates in that area have, in theory, made the decision.

The Parliamentary Secretary speaks about working together. Does she accept that that has resulted in a staggering 96 magistrates courts closures throughout England and Wales since 1997, with more expected? Home Office statistics reveal that public confidence in the manner in which we deal with the criminal justice system has plummeted under the Government. Against the clear backdrop of threat to local justice under the Lord Chancellor's regime as more and more magistrates courts, many in rural areas, are shut, how does the Parliamentary Secretary propose to shore up faltering confidence in the system?

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. He should consider history. I know that he enjoys discrediting the history of Conservative Governments, but his previous party—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] That was a Freudian slip. In the last year his party was in government, three times as many courts closed as under this Government last year. Rural court closures in the last year of the Tory Government included Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove and so on. Between 1993 and 1996—

Order. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that when I stand, the lady sits. It is as simple as that.