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Magistrates Courts (Wiltshire)

Volume 560: debated on Friday 22 March 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

The purpose of this debate is to challenge the decision made by the Ministry of Justice to merge magistrate benches in the Wiltshire and Swindon local justice areas, and to reallocate cases to the three courts of Swindon, Chippenham and Salisbury.

Under proposed changes to the magistrates court matrix in Wiltshire, custody remand cases will be transferred to Swindon and, in all but exceptional circumstances, trials will take place in Chippenham. The £19 million Salisbury court development will handle family work, a limited number of early hearings and straightforward cases involving an associate prosecutor. The changes have been proposed on the grounds of a declining criminal case load, funding cuts and the need to reduce the number of collapsed trials.

In 2003, my predecessor Robert Key drew attention to the need for better court facilities in Salisbury, commenting that

“the current situation is unfair to the accused, who have to be bussed around Wiltshire to find a courthouse”.

Now, 10 years later, we have a state of the art, £19 million courthouse. It was constructed deliberately next to the police station with the only custody suite in south Wiltshire to ensure it could deliver swift justice for the people of Salisbury. As a former justice of the peace for six years, I recognise the underlying logic that leads to proposals to centralise resources. However, the changes to the matrix proposed in Wiltshire have generated widespread concern among my local magistrates, solicitors and victims’ representatives. They fear that the proposals

“demonstrate no interest in delivering fair and just outcomes”—

and that—

“common sense is going to be thrown to the wind to affect a budgetary fix.”

There are three key factors that demonstrate this: the physical geography of Wiltshire, the likely financial costs which are currently overlooked, and the needs of victims and witnesses.

The physical geography of Wiltshire and Swindon is significant. Wiltshire is a predominantly rural county, and more than half of the population of Salisbury lives in rural settlements. Swindon is a largely urban district with an identity that is very much separate from Wiltshire. There is a distinct natural divide in the Salisbury plain that separates the north and south of the county, and makes transport from one side to the other difficult. That was recognised by the Lord Chief Justice in 2010 when he was consulted on the closure of Trowbridge county court. He emphasised that

“Chippenham is situated in the north of the catchment of this largely rural area...for many, it is not readily accessible, if at all, by public transport.”

Despite that, the matrix consultation document states that

“the expectation will be that, for the majority of contested cases, the trial will be heard in the Chippenham Magistrates’ Court.”

It really does nothing for public confidence in the system if these real and practical issues are not addressed properly.

To demonstrate how the geography has an impact on victims and witnesses, the proposals should be distilled and applied to individual cases. For instance, one constituent in Downton would spend one hour and 18 minutes travelling by car. However, that is merely an inconvenience; access by public transport is impossible in time for a 10 o’clock hearing. If my constituent takes the first bus, the 7.04 am X3 service from Downton, they will arrive at Salisbury bus station at 7.22 am. From there, they walk for 15 minutes to the railway station where they will catch the 8.30 am service to Bath Spa, arriving at 9.35 am. Following an eight-minute wait, they will take the 9.43 am to Chippenham and arrive at 09.54 am, and then walk for some 30 minutes to finally reach the court at 10.30 am. They will have been travelling for three and a half hours, which makes a mockery of the consultation document’s statement that

“court users should not have to make long or difficult journeys”.

A quarter of my constituents in Salisbury, St Martins are without a car, and will be at the mercy of this new system.

This is not an isolated case: these challenges are replicated across south Wiltshire. The area has six key towns—Salisbury, Amesbury, Downton, Mere, Tisbury and Wilton—only one of which has a public transport link to Chippenham, and that is a 90-minute train journey from Salisbury. Allowing time for the 15-minute walk between bus and train stations, only Amesbury and Wilton have bus services that will ensure arrival in time for the 7.19 train. This is the latest service north to Chippenham that will enable someone to be at court before the 10 o’clock start. Even within Salisbury, there will be problems. Someone in the residential area of Laverstock, for example, would have to walk for 40 minutes to the train station, because there are no buses early enough.

Those are the difficulties faced within the major settlements. The situation in the towns and villages, where more than half of south Wiltshire’s population is based, is far more problematic. For instance, although villages such as Shrewton are geographically closer to Chippenham, the transport links are such that the journey still requires a 40-minute bus journey to Devizes, a further 40-minute wait and then another 45 minutes on a bus to cover just 23 miles.

The problem with these travel times will also be apparent when defendants remanded into custody have to attend hearings in Swindon. In those areas, the impact will be on solicitors and family members supporting bail. If a defence solicitor has been dealing with a client in interview who is then taken into custody, they will be faced with 24 hours to clear their appointments for the following day, including three hours simply to travel. If that defendant is then released in Swindon on bail, they will be expected to find their own way back home, either in the form of a 92-minute train journey or a two-hour bus journey.

So strong is the divide between the north and south of the area that there is a probability that the defendant will never have been to Swindon before. Because of the lack of infrastructure created by the divide of the Salisbury plain, the risk of non-attendance is higher, if individuals are reliant on public transport connections running on time or the roads being clear. In order for a trial to proceed as planned, three magistrates, court staff, a defendant, a solicitor and all witnesses must be able to reach the court. All it would take to prevent that is an accident on a major carriageway, a broken-down bus or one individual missing their connecting train. None of those facts can be controlled by defendants, victims and witnesses, yet they are the ones who will bear the brunt of the disruption. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service argues that trials have a

“better chance of proceeding on the day the trial is listed, thereby minimizing inconvenience to victims and witnesses.”

Those benefits will inevitably be damaged by individuals failing to attend court through circumstances not of their making.

The consultation sums up the challenges presented by Wiltshire and Swindon’s geography by stating that

“public transport links are poor in some parts of Wiltshire”.

That does not do justice to the scale of the problem, I am afraid. The physical geography of Wiltshire is a natural barrier to good, integrated public transport. Where trials were scheduled around staff and resources, they will now be arranged around bus and train timetables. Some 17% of my constituents are without access to a car—a figure that worsens considerably as incomes decrease. Under these proposals, they would also be without access to a compassionate justice system, faced with appalling travel times and penalised unfairly despite being victims. I echo the call made by the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire, Angus Macpherson, that there must be a

“right to local disposal for cases which generate these excessive travel times”.

I now turn to the second major issue: the financial implications of the process. I do not believe that the expected savings from this process will be fully realised. If we assume that a defendant is funded by legal aid, getting their solicitor to Swindon would add approximately £116.70. When they are bailed, there is a further £24 for a single train ticket to return them to Salisbury. If their trial is scheduled in Chippenham, their travel costs will be £26 and their solicitors will be £98. In addition, there will be mileage claims for three magistrates from across the county and witnesses, which could add another £60. As a result, the bill for simply transporting those involved in one case across the county reaches a staggering £323.

Those costs will quickly chip away at the financial savings accrued through centralisation, especially where cases collapse or adjourn more frequently. Moreover, the consultation document does not provide a breakdown of the estimated savings to the courts. They will be dependent on reducing the number of collapsed trials—something that is not proven yet and that many local magistrates do not believe will happen. My local magistrates association tells me that it believes that the impact on the justice system is not acceptable and will worsen the situation. There will be a large increase in the number of ineffective trials because defendants and witnesses have been unable to attend. It seems that the gains in throughput due to administrative efficiency will simply be cancelled out.

I recognise, as do my constituents, that savings have to be found, but they should not be made at the expense of a logical local justice system. In a single day last December, Wiltshire police and civilian officers collected a remarkable £28,000 in unpaid fines. We have some £5.5 million uncollected in the county. It seems unfair to penalise my constituents as victims and witnesses by expecting magistrates serving their community to travel such distances and for the law-abiding majority to foot the bill, while that sum cannot be collected. One of my constituents who practises as a solicitor, Stephen Ritter, describes the proposals as a

“budgetary fix for the next year or two, which will probably then generate a greater amount of money being spent to remedy the issue”

that will be created.

Thirdly, there is a strong case to be made that the proposals are designed for the convenience of the court system without fully considering the needs of victims, witnesses, magistrates or advocates. It is easy to picture the chaotic scenario whereby a case that originated in Salisbury goes to trial in Chippenham. Three magistrates are called. One is based in Swindon, one in Chippenham and another in the south of the county. The defendant drives to the north of the county on the A360, the main road connecting Salisbury to Chippenham, and gets stuck in traffic due to an accident. The victim has no access to a car. Even though they manage to catch their bus and walk to the station, their train is delayed due to a fault on the line. The trial would collapse and the case would have to be adjourned. The frustration of those involved would be extremely understandable. A victim who had done nothing wrong might find themselves unable to get to court and would have to arrange further time off, child care and transport to go through the extremely stressful process all over again. The same is true for defendants. Let us imagine someone who was felt to be a crucial witness being stuck in traffic. We would be left with the prospect of the case proceeding in their absence. Magistrates, advocates and staff would have wasted considerable time and effort on an ultimately fruitless exercise.

It is also critical that we retain the confidence of serving magistrates in Wiltshire. I pay tribute to them and all the vital work they do. Introducing the matrix as it stands will inevitably act as a barrier to new magistrates, by effectively requiring them to have access to their own transport. Asking currently serving justices of the peace, who freely give up much of their own time, to spend up to three additional hours travelling to court is a tall order. I know from personal experience how challenging it is to juggle a hectic working schedule. Had I been asked to travel such distances regularly, I simply could not have continued. Stephen MacMahon, the Wiltshire magistrates association chairman, tells me that he fears that

“many magistrates will resign because of the unnecessary and pointless inconvenience”.

A further point to consider is the implications for advocates in remand cases. Only 16% of in-custody defendants are brought before the Salisbury court. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service sees that as a justification for moving such cases to the north of the county; I see it as a reason to retain them. It seems ludicrous to send such a small proportion of cases 43 miles away when the facilities—expensive ones at that—are literally on the doorstep.

Swindon is ill equipped to deal with cases from the whole area as it has only five cells. The transportation of defendants will have to be staggered—a further completely illogical complication. Solicitors are spending hours of their day travelling across the county for the sake of convenience, with no guarantee that their case will proceed. Richard Griffiths, a distinguished solicitor who has practised in my constituency for 32 years, tells me that

“given the logistics of the county it is better to let Salisbury look after the Southern half of the County and deal with their own remand prisoners”.

I completely agree.

The proposals ultimately have implications for everyone in the area. It is testament to the level of concern among solicitors that a Chippenham-based firm is opposed to the centralisation of trials there. That firm’s submission states

“looking at the wider interests of justice for the whole county, we do not believe this is a sensible proposal”.

The views I have put forward today are supported by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, who could not be here today, wished to express the view that

“local justice is at its best when it is in touch with local people and the problems on the ground. There are problems unique to Swindon and problems unique to Chippenham. This merger will threaten the capacity of magistrates to deploy their local knowledge to full effect. I wholeheartedly support the call for the Government to rethink these changes.”

As a Government, we have committed to putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, yet these proposals are at odds with that agenda. Why should my constituent, as someone who has suffered crime or abuse, be expected to spend at least two hours anxiously travelling across the county to ensure the person who injured them is punished? As one such victim commented,

“these proposals scream that they don’t understand the needs of victims”.

Administrative efficiencies are certainly a worthy cause, but they should never be allowed to override the fundamental principle of access to justice. Uncosted, unproven savings based on speculative assumptions are not the basis for a sound policy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing the debate.

Let me make three things clear from the outset. First, no decisions have been made on this matter. The local area is conducting a consultation on the proposals and I would not want to prejudge the outcome of that consultation in the Chamber today. Secondly, the proposed merger of benches and the proposed changes to the court matrix are completely different matters and are not related to one another, except for the fact that they are taking place according to a similar timetable. Thirdly, the maintenance of appropriate arrangements for the deployment of the judiciary in England and Wales and the allocation of work within courts is the statutory responsibility of the Lord Chief Justice, not the Lord Chancellor.

Together with and supported by clerks through the justices’ issues group, which I shall refer to as the issues group, local magistrates ensure that there is sufficient court time available to meet demand and that the right facilities are provided for the cases that come before them. That includes reviewing the sitting programmes of magistrates courts in the area.

In line with those in other areas, Wiltshire magistrates review the sitting programme for the courts in each area every six months to ensure it is properly aligned with the work load. Criminal work load in Wiltshire’s magistrates courts is falling. In north-west Wiltshire, it has decreased by 25%, in south-east Wiltshire by 26% and in Swindon by 8%. That reflects a national trend and the forecast is for further reduction, but family court work is increasing in the area and it is right that local arrangements are made to accommodate that.

The low volume of criminal cases, particularly in rural areas, means that some courts are not fully occupied. Steps are being taken in Wiltshire to consolidate similar business and are designed to help make the best use of the estate, accommodate a growing family case load and tribunals work load, and reduce the inconvenience to court users caused by sitting patterns changing, often at very short notice. The proposals have been subject to wide stakeholder consultation, which closed on 15 March 2013. The responses to that consultation are being considered by the local area, and the issues group will meet shortly to discuss the proposals. The final decision as to how to arrange the business will rest with that group.

The consultation has been designed to draw out specific impacts on various groups, which will be considered carefully and a full equality impact assessment will be carried out before implementation. The clerk for the area and the bench chairmen have held meetings with local defence advocates and a representative of the Legal Services Commission better to understand their concerns. The issues group will consider carefully the impact on magistrates’ rotas, and those considerations will take into account the need to balance travel time and costs against the need to maintain competences and sittings across a wide range of work areas.

I understand the concern that some changes may result in increased travel for victims and witnesses. Wiltshire is a rural county, and public transport links are often limited. That is why the local area is working closely with criminal justice partners to look at ways to overcome that, especially by making the most of video technology. It is important to remember that proposals for Salisbury court suggest that some trials will remain in that locality and that start times for those held in Chippenham can be flexible, accommodating the needs of court users wherever possible.

In deciding how we meet the needs of victims and witnesses, we need to weigh up whether an increase in journey times to court is offset by the benefit of increased certainty for the victims and witnesses that the trials they are called to attend are much more likely to go ahead as planned. There is an opportunity to focus facilities at Chippenham for accommodating victims and witnesses, as it will be a dedicated trials venue, and we must make better use of court time for magistrates and court users to ensure that best use is made of their valuable time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has raised some serious issues, and I should like to comment further on one or two of them. I want to reassure him as far as possible that these appear to be sensible and proportionate proposals that accommodate a change in the legal landscape. It is not just about a diminishing workload but about a 45% increase in family work in the area, which must be accommodated. I remind him that all responses to the consultation will be considered very carefully indeed, including the response to the consultation from him and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), to which he referred. I repeat that no decision has yet been made.

On the issue of inconvenience for witnesses and victims, it is my aim as victims Minister to put the interests of victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. We recognise that there may be some inconvenience with increased journey times, but that must be weighed carefully against benefits such as increased certainty of trials proceeding, increased expertise and the proper use of court resources and magistrates’ skills. Criminal business in magistrates courts is reducing. We have a duty to court users and a duty to deliver an efficient and effective service across all parts of our business, and we believe that the proposals help us to do both.

This is a local initiative being driven and supported by the judiciary in Wiltshire. Local justice is about visible and continual engagement with communities. It does not mean providing a courthouse in every town or city, and that courthouse hearing every type of business. Quality, speed and efficiency of the service that we provide, which commands respect for the justice system, are much more significant to the delivery of effective local justice across our communities. We will continue to work closely with the judiciary and other key stakeholders as we consider how best to harness the potential of magistrates through our wider reform programme.

I hope that what I have said today reassures my hon. Friend the member for Salisbury that the Government are serious about working with magistrates and the judiciary to improve the local and regional administration of justice in the south-west and nationally.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.