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Sutton Magistrates Court

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

I welcome the opportunity for this timely debate. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) wishes to make a brief contribution to the debate.

Order. May I just correct the hon. Member? Your colleague cannot make a brief contribution without the consent of the Minister and the Chair, but he can, of course, intervene on you.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for that intervention. I hope that the Minister will be receptive to the idea that my hon. Friend will share my time in this debate. I think that she has nodded her assent to that proposal.

This is not our first debate on Sutton magistrates court. My hon. Friend secured a debate on this subject on 14 May 2003, to which I contributed. I also secured a question high up the list in Prime Minister’s questions on 26 March 2003, when I asked him whether he could explain why the Greater London Magistrates’ Court Authority, which existed then and was responsible for the courts in London, had decided to close Sutton magistrates court. It is worth reminding hon. Members of the Prime Minister’s response. He said:

“I regret to say that the honest answer is that I cannot explain that, since I am not fully aware of the circumstances. I can certainly look into what those circumstances are, but I assume that the decision has been taken by the magistrates authority. There it is; it is a local decision”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 290.]

I am afraid that that could not be further from the truth. The GLMCA was not local in any true sense of the word. The real locals—justices of the peace, councillors, Members of Parliament, Victim Support, residents and the police—were all opposed to the closure. The GLMCA, which is not accountable to the local community and had no connections with it, as far as I could detect, favoured closure on cost grounds.

I congratulate the Minister at that time, Christopher Leslie, on granting the local authority’s appeal against the closure, so Sutton magistrates court did not close in 2003. One consideration that now gives me cause for concern is that the local authority can no longer appeal, so it is down to other parties to object or try to get overturned any future decision to close the court, should such a decision be taken. When Christopher Leslie made that decision he issued a press release, which I shall quote, because it is very relevant. He said:

“There are good arguments for and against the proposals put forward by the GLMCA, but I believe that justice in London is best served by keeping open these courts. By retaining them, Londoners can see their local court in operation. This is vitally important if people are to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”

He went on to say that he had decided that each borough needed a local court given the size of the population that the courts serve and the high use made of them. I very much welcome those statements.

The press release also said, of another appeal, that Mr. Leslie judged that it would be particularly difficult for Harrow borough residents to get to Brent courthouse, which is where work would have been reallocated. It is worth dwelling on that point, because it might be proposed that the court in Bromley could be used as an alternative venue for some or all of Sutton court’s cases. I recommend to the person who might put forward that proposal that they attempt to travel from Sutton to Bromley. I have made that journey five times in the last month or so, because of the by-election there. I imagine that by car it would take about an hour to an hour and a half in the week. To travel that journey by public transport requires one either to go in to London Victoria and right back out again and take bus connections at either end, or to take a train journey to East Croydon or West Croydon, followed by a tram to Beckenham junction, followed by a train to one of the Bromley stations and a bus at the other end. Clearly, many people, whether they are due to appear in court or to attend as a victim or witness, would simply rather not undertake such a journey. I cannot see how Bromley can be a viable alternative.

I do not have time to go through everything that was put forward in the local authority’s appeal when it fought the court’s closure, but I shall quote the final paragraph of the document, where it says that

“it is apparent that any decision to close the Sutton courthouse would have an adverse impact on the majority of court users and therefore fails to comply with what the GLMCA has set as one of the central tenets for its existence ‘providing a better level of service to court users at the point of delivery—in the courtrooms and at the courthouses’.”

Surely, whatever review is under way, that is what it must be about.

It has been quite hard to find out what is driving the current review of the courts. According to an official at Her Majesty’s Courts Service, there is no formal review under way, and what is happening is just part of the normal business planning process. It appears to be driven by the London estates strategy, which talks about the estate having a direct impact on the user experience in relation to victims, witnesses, jurors and people with disabilities. I certainly support that, but organisational changes are being proposed that would see the court clustered with Croydon and Bromley. Apparently, a paper is to be circulated some time this month, and there is to be formal consultation in September or October. Will the Minister comment on that time scale and whether that process will be followed?

If Sutton is proposed for closure, will the following steps be taken? Will the reason for the proposed closure be published? Will there be a consultation paper and time allowed for responses to the paper, after which an area director will decide whether to confirm the court closure? Will that decision then go to a courts board and eventually arrive on the Minister’s desk for her to sign off? I hope that she can confirm that. Her officials behind her have just nodded their heads, so it seems as though that procedure would have to be followed.

Local JPs are worried that clustering will be the first step towards closure. They particularly think that if each court in the cluster is not appointed a bench legal manager—the person who arbitrates on legal procedure, acts as a channel of communication with the police and Crown Prosecution Service and provides a link between the court’s operational activities and the magistrates—that will lead to the demise of the court. They are also worried that the demise of Sutton magistrates court is being precipitated because there is a shortage of administration staff there, which means that although it has the legal capacity to do more work than it does, it does not have the administrative capacity to support that. The court might therefore appear not to be busy. I can confirm that administrative support is missing; having made repeated attempts to call the court to discuss this issue, I eventually had to find another way to contact the court because the phones were, regrettably, not answered.

There are many local concerns, but I shall conclude now to allow my colleague to contribute. We fought and won a battle on this issue three years ago. The arguments that we then deployed in favour of the magistrates court are just as relevant now. We want local justice to be delivered locally by local magistrates, and that is why the court in Sutton must stay open.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for applying for and securing a debate on this subject today. I am also grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to it.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, when this debate came up and when we became aware that in the wind was the possibility that Sutton courthouse might again be under threat of closure, there was a sense of déjà vu. As he said, just three years ago such a threat was hanging over it. Then, it was the Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority that was making the running and setting out the arguments for closure. I say setting out the arguments, but in a way the closure proposals then lacked any robust evidence to argue the case and the process lacked transparency. Time and again, my hon. Friend and I would write to the GLMCA on behalf of the magistrates court chairman at the time, Tony Kerr, asking questions and seeking data. In response, we received either no answer or prevarication; we did not receive the information that was relevant to understanding the basis on which the GLMCA was proceeding.

Following much hard work by the justices of the peace, the Sutton bench, in particular Tony Kerr, and colleagues on the council of the London borough of Sutton, and some lobbying both at Prime Minister’s questions and in other ways by myself and my hon. Friend, we seemed to have been able to unpeel the lack of evidence and get the Department to understand that the basis for the closure proposal was not robust, and was indeed rather flimsy. Consequently, the appeal that was made was upheld, and we were grateful to the Minister at the time for reaching that conclusion.

It is hard to see what has changed in the past three years, except that there has been a diminution of the services available to my constituents over the past few years, as access, at least by telephone, seems to have worsened. When one examines the strategy that is being put forward by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, particularly the strategic goal that is set out in the business plan, one finds it hard to reconcile the proposition that might now come along of clustering, and of moving my local courthouse and requiring victims of crime, the local police service and others to make the journey all the way to Bromley to have their cases dealt with.

As my hon. Friend rightly identified, the difficulties of getting from the London borough of Sutton, particularly from Worcester Park, which is at the furthest extent of my constituency, all the way to Bromley beggar belief. Orbital movement in that part of London is difficult. Public transport is not effective in facilitating easy transit. How on earth could the closure be seen to be improving access to justice? I would need to see some close argumentation from Her Majesty’s Courts Service before I could be convinced on that matter. Many of my constituents would not be convinced that such a move made sense from their point of view.

My delight in my hon. Friend’s securing this debate is tempered by the fact that, three years on, we are back to square one; we are back to the point where this debate must happen and we must ask the Minister some questions. The key issue for me is that if we are now about to embark on a similar process of examining the need for this courthouse, we must be clear that this time there will be transparency, honesty and the availability of the data. If those things are not present, and if we cannot see the data—

On clarity, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be important to know what the estates strategy means when it talks about Sutton court being an “opportunity”?

Yes, there is a lovely euphemism in the business plan; it talks of “integration opportunities”. I call them mergers and closures. That is what we are talking about. It is an opportunity to close a courthouse, realise an asset and reinvest it elsewhere in the business activities of Her Majesty’s Courts Service. The downside is that our constituents and those who are victims of crime do not have as easy access to the courts service.

I end with the fact that I am particularly concerned about the amount of time that will potentially be wasted by police officers from my patch having to travel further to be present in court. That runs the risk of non-attendance and of people who should be patrolling our streets and looking after our communities not being able to do that job—even more so than at present. That must be a consideration. So, for the same reasons as were given by my hon. Friend, we need transparency in any process of decision making on this, and reassurance that we will get to see the full facts on which any decisions are based. Local people want, need and deserve to have local justice delivered by local magistrates close to home, not a long way away, in Bromley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate; perhaps I should congratulate the double act that is now in place, because he and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) are each sharing one another’s concerns, as they did a few years ago. I am pleased that I have the opportunity to respond on behalf of my Department, although I should apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who would normally respond on these issues. Unfortunately, she has had to be away on departmental business.

Obviously, the comments that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made show that he has been concerned about this issue for some time. I am very much aware of the strength of feeling in the local community; it was clearly and successfully demonstrated in 2003, when the decision to close Sutton magistrates court was taken by the then Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority.

I am grateful for the positive and gracious comments that both hon. Gentlemen made about my friend, Christopher Leslie, who was the Minister at the time and who, along with the Lord Chancellor, upheld the subsequent appeal, having taken into account the needs and views of local users. I hope that by saying this at the beginning of my response, it will give some reassurance to both hon. Gentlemen: our position remains that there are no plans to close Sutton magistrates courthouse.

The court is a five-courtroom courthouse in the centre of Wallington. The property is wholly owned by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, and is in a good state of repair, which is perhaps unusual when one considers the comparison with other courthouses in London—the one that serves my local community could do with some money invested in it, and I may come to that point later. Some 17 staff are employed, including legal and administrative staff, and there is strong support from about 90 magistrates. It serves the community of Sutton and the surrounding area, with a mixed case load of criminal and family work, and it does so to a high standard. It is important to put that on the record.

Her Majesty’s Courts Service works closely with key local stakeholders, criminal justice agencies, magistrates and the judiciary on the effective delivery of services to local communities. It must also balance the demands placed on it with the resources that it has at its disposal.

I am acutely aware of the need to provide services as close to the local community as possible, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made clear in his closing remarks, but there is also a requirement on the Courts Service to review continuously the effectiveness and efficiency of its operation, to maximise the use of its buildings and to provide the best front-line service possible to local users of courts.

Within the London region, recent discussions with magistrates and criminal justice agencies have concluded that there would be a benefit to grouping neighbouring magistrates courts into clusters. That would improve the flexibility in the listing of cases, use courtrooms more efficiently and allow staff to be deployed more flexibly.

In practice, such a move could make it possible to run trial courts alongside each other, and allow the listing of work into those courts from any of the boroughs within the cluster. It could also concentrate the work of certain non-Crown Prosecution Service prosecution agencies in particular courtrooms, so releasing CPS prosecutors to appear at other remand and trial courts; accommodate the administration that undertakes important back-office functions at a single location to improve the quality, consistency and efficiency of the service provided; and allow the creation of a single legal team to support all the courts in the cluster, thereby providing better cover and increasing the range of work available to each legal adviser. That should have positive results for the local community. In particular, it should provide benefits to victims and witnesses because the cases in which they are involved will be listed and progressed more quickly. It should also provide benefits for the magistrates working in the cluster groups because they will be able to gain broader case experience.

As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, it is proposed that Sutton magistrates court is clustered with Croydon and Bromley courthouses as one of the 10 clusters recommended for London. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman made the point about Bromley, but Croydon is also in that cluster. I heard what he said about travel problems between Sutton and Bromley, but Croydon is an important transport hub for both Bromley and Sutton and we should not lose sight of that.

While that is true, in fact transport connections from the London borough of Sutton are via West Croydon, but the main interchange is East Croydon, so transport access is not straightforward.

Yes. I know the area very well and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

There is already a precedent for joint working between courts in south-east London. For example, Camberwell has a satellite court at London Bridge, and Greenwich and Woolwich magistrates courts work co-operatively together, which has proved to be very productive in terms of relationships. I have a personal interest in that because those courts serve my community.

Would it be possible, after the debate, to obtain access to information about any modelling that has been done of the cluster idea in terms of its effect on the use of the three courts’ capacity and what it might mean for our constituents in terms of their travelling and where they might end up travelling to? It would be useful to know whether any modelling has been done.

I will certainly try to ensure that if such information is available it is provided to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington.

We referred earlier to the fact that Sutton is an opportunity court. The comments on other opportunity courts state that Ilford, for example, has the potential to relocate. Could the Minister try to ascertain from the relevant Department precisely the way in which Sutton constitutes an opportunity?

I shall come to the definition of opportunity, but it means that there are likely to be different opportunities for continued usage in future. However, that does not necessarily mean closure. It could mean a court being used for a batch of similar cases that could be dealt with more productively if, for example, they were all based in one place.

The bench chairs in London have discussed the issue and agreed that clusters are a sensible way forward. That has also been discussed with the criminal justice agencies in London which support the change. The Courts Service intends to publish a consultation document later this month setting out the proposals in detail. If the proposals are widely supported, we would expect to implement them in the spring next year. However, they are subject to that consultation, and attention will be paid to the responses. We believe that the improvements to working practices should deliver an improved, high-quality service to local residents in Sutton by introducing greater flexibility and the ability to target resources more effectively and efficiently.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to victims and witnesses and we really want to put them at the heart of our court system, so it is important that we give them the opportunity to see their cases through as efficiently, professionally and sensitively as possible.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked about the definition of opportunity and I hope that I have made a reasonable attempt to respond. Another issue concerns what drives the courts strategy. We are looking in detail at improving the court estate. For example, Greenwich magistrates court needs substantial work. The facilities and conditions of the court estate are not good enough and there are still areas with too much mixing of victims, witnesses and defendants. I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen are aware of the issues.

During the formal consultation phase of the proposals, would it be possible for the Minister or her colleague the Minister of State to meet me and my hon. Friend and representatives of the London borough of Sutton to discuss our concerns in a little more detail? Obviously, at that point we will have had the benefit of looking at any modelling and other data on the proposals.

I do not want to commit my right hon. and learned Friend to meetings without having a word with her, but I will certainly put it to her. She is generally very open to meetings with colleagues and, if her diary permits, I am sure that she will allow that.

On strategy, there is not a bottomless pot of money. The Courts Service must demonstrate that it is efficient and effective in its use of public funds, including its estate.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether the local authority could appeal under the system. Local authorities no longer make a financial contribution to the courts and I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about whether the local authority can definitely not appeal against closure. At the moment, of course, there is no closure, but I will ensure that that point is clarified. If at a future date the agency concludes that any of its courthouses should close, that could only follow rigorous evaluation of the benefits of doing so, including full consultation with local communities and key stakeholders who may be affected. Obviously, Members of Parliament are key to that.

I thought that the Minister was about to conclude. Will she respond on the bench legal manager issue, if not now then at least in writing? That is clearly an issue that JPs are most concerned about. I thought from her response that she was saying that there would be only one legal representative per cluster, but perhaps I misunderstood her.

I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the bench legal manager. There will be local centralisation of administrative functions, but I shall have to take advice on whether that means only one legal manager. I will return to the hon. Gentleman on that.

I hope that I have reassured both hon. Gentlemen about Sutton magistrates court and its role in our court service. I want to put on record our thanks to the magistrates in Sutton for the splendid work that they do and will continue to do. We want to ensure that we give them the opportunity to expand their experience within a strategy that ensures that our court service serves the people it is supposed to represent.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.