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Magistrates Courts: Suffolk

Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered magistrates courts in Suffolk.

Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the future of magistrates courts in Suffolk, following the publication of the Government’s proposals to close two of the remaining three courts in Suffolk: the court at Lowestoft, which is in my Waveney constituency, and the court in Bury St Edmunds, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). Sir Roger, with your approval and that of the Minister, I propose to speak for the majority of the time for this debate, and my hon. Friend will say a few words about the situation in Bury St Edmunds.

I am grateful to the Minister for the time that he has already given to me to listen to my concerns about the proposed closure of Lowestoft magistrates court. He has answered my questions in the Chamber and he and his officials have met Lowestoft solicitors and me.

There is no argument about the need to reform the justice system. However, any changes must not be at the expense of local access to justice. My concern is that the current proposals will imperil that. There is a need for a long-term vision of the future of our justice system, and it is important that local concerns and local knowledge are properly taken into account in the consultation that is now taking place.

There is a widespread view in Suffolk that the current proposals short-change Suffolk and that we have got a raw deal compared with other counties. The police and crime commissioner has expressed his concern, as have the temporary chief constable, the former superintendent in charge of the Lowestoft sector, the Police Federation, and the Suffolk and North Essex Law Society, as well as Lowestoft solicitors, who are working up an alternative proposal for Lowestoft. The East Anglian Daily Times has launched its “Justice for Suffolk” campaign and The Lowestoft Journal has launched a “Keep Justice Local” campaign.

In the early 1990s, there were 12 magistrates courts in Suffolk. If the Government’s current proposals go ahead, only one will remain, in Ipswich. Although Ipswich is the county town, it is located at the southern end of the county, and it is a long way from and inaccessible to much of the rest of the county, in particular—from my perspective— north-east Suffolk, including the Waveney constituency and Lowestoft. In Ministry of Justice questions last week, I highlighted the fact that under the current proposals Suffolk would be one of only six English counties with just one magistrates court. That contrasts with the three courts being proposed for Norfolk and the four that would remain in Essex.

Moreover, under the current proposals Suffolk would be the worst English county for the number of magistrates courts per square mile, with one for every 1,466 square miles, compared with one for every 692 square miles in neighbouring Norfolk, one for every 355 square miles in Essex and one for every 655 square miles in Cambridgeshire. In response to my question last week, the Minister referred to Suffolk’s being a very “law-abiding” county. That is true, but by no stretch of the imagination can Suffolk be described as twice as law-abiding as Norfolk, the neighbouring county, which has a very similar demography and geography.

In its consultation document, the Ministry of Justice stated that if its proposals are implemented across the country 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within one hour by car. If Lowestoft magistrates court closes, that will not be the case for many people in north Suffolk, whether they are urban or rural dwellers. Travel times from Lowestoft to Ipswich are approximately 90 minutes, whether by car or train, and there is no direct bus service. Journeys to Great Yarmouth and Norwich are by no means straightforward either. The position in Norfolk is very different, as Norwich is more centrally located in Norfolk than Ipswich is in Suffolk, with all the main roads to the different corners of Norfolk radiating out of the city.

Lowestoft magistrates court is a relatively modern building, which has the advantage of occupying a readily accessible location adjoining the police station. It is also close to the new shared offices of the national probation service and the community rehabilitation company, as well as the town centre, and within walking distance of both the bus and railway stations. There is also an adjacent car park, which is underutilised. The court’s concourse goes straight on to the pavement and there are lifts to the cells.

Any changes to the court estate must ensure that this strategically placed community asset continues to be used. The building is not expensive to run. Moreover, it has operated extremely efficiently over the years, outperforming other courts in Suffolk and Norfolk in terms of administering justice both promptly and fairly. It has been underutilised in recent years, although this is as a result of a reduction in the number of hearings scheduled for Lowestoft. Custodies have moved elsewhere, motoring offences have gone to Ipswich, and family proceedings also now take place in Ipswich. The magistrates court in Lowestoft sits less often than it used to, but that is not due to a lack of either magistrates or staff. The cynical might say that there has been a deliberate redirection of work away from Lowestoft, with fewer sittings taking place there so as to tie in with the agenda of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service rather than to provide a service to the local citizens, whose needs the court—and us—should meet.

There is also a concern that the analysis of costs on which the Ministry of Justice is basing its decision to close Lowestoft magistrates court is incorrect. That analysis shows 31 staff working from the court. It would appear that that number includes those administrative staff who work on the first floor in the fines collection department. They cover the whole of East Anglia and will continue to be employed if the court closes. Therefore, it is not appropriate to include their costs in those of running Lowestoft magistrates court. In addition, a further advantage of the court remaining open is that the cost of upheaval and relocation of its staff would be avoided.

The closure of Lowestoft magistrates court would make it very difficult for many people in north-east Suffolk to access justice. If court work is transferred to Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich, many people in Lowestoft, in the market towns of Beccles and Bungay and in the surrounding rural areas could not reach the relevant court in one hour by public transport. They would face significant travel costs in an area where wages are generally low, with the poorest and most vulnerable being most at risk.

The feedback that I am receiving is that the very thought of having to attend a court hearing away from Lowestoft, whether as a victim, a defendant or a witness, could put off many people from attending. There is a worry that there could be more failed trials, due to the difficulties in getting defendants and witnesses to court. With a local court such as Lowestoft, it is relatively easy for the local police to find those people who fail to appear in court quickly.

There are also concerns about domestic violence cases, and there is a strong view that such cases should be listed locally in the first instance. There would be problems in getting both support staff and victims to court if such cases are not heard locally. There is also a real worry that victims, witnesses and defendants in domestic violence cases could all find themselves on the same train or bus to another court. It might even be the case that the magistrate would be on the same train or bus.

The feedback from those hearings that already take place away from Lowestoft is not encouraging. Private family cases have their first hearing in Ipswich. That means more expensive travel, which adds to the trauma of going a long way to consider what are often complicated and highly emotional issues, such as child arrangement orders. If the case goes on for two or three days, the parties who live in Lowestoft will have to travel to Ipswich daily. Ipswich family court is already at capacity and is not coping. Consequently, some cases have been redirected to Chelmsford, which is a very long way from Lowestoft. With a 9 am start for hearings, there is a real challenge for people to get to court on time. Also, if social workers have to attend, they are in effect unable to do any other work for the remainder of the day.

The Government are placing great stock on increased use of information technology extending the use of “virtual courts”, with victims, witnesses and defendants appearing on screen. There is a place for that, but the feedback that I am receiving locally is that where it is being used, there are “teething difficulties”, with what was previously being done in a morning in Lowestoft court now taking the whole day.

There is also a worry that some of the pilots that are being carried out are in metropolitan areas, which are completely different to shire counties such as Suffolk. The single justice procedure pathfinder court, which commenced in mid-May, is taking place in south-west London. The “make a plea online” service is being piloted in Manchester. The rota online pilot is taking place in Hampshire and in south-west London. There is a view that if we rush to close courts on the premise that digital services will step smoothly into the shoes of magistrates courts, courthouses will have to be reopened if the new arrangements do not work, and where the courthouses have been sold or are no longer available, new ones will have to be built.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on making a brilliant and passionate speech on a subject that is important both for his constituents and for mine in South Suffolk. On information technology, do we not have to factor in broadband speed in areas that might be expected to use the services?

My hon. Friend is correct. In the context of going from 12 courts in the 1990s to the one that is proposed now, one hoped that traditional forms of communication—road and rail—and also broadband would have improved dramatically. They are moving in the right direction, but I do not think that they have improved to such an extent.

In family court and domestic violence cases there is a role for video links in safeguarding victims. In certain circumstances they are extremely appropriate and necessary, but solicitors emphasise to me the importance of personal interaction in reaching the right verdict. There is a fear that the whole process could be dehumanised, with serious implications for the fair administration of justice.

The great advantage of magistrates courts is that magistrates are drawn from the local area. They know their patch and can set cases in the right context, which is important in administering local justice. Such localism could be lost if courts were closed and their jurisdiction transferred to others 30 to 40 miles away—for example Ipswich, which is not easy to get to from Lowestoft. Any review of the court system should look closely at the scope of the work being carried out in magistrates courts.

With digitalisation, Sir Brian Leveson’s review and the Government’s proposed changes, the role and work of magistrates will change. As part of that, the Government should seriously consider changing the jurisdiction of and extending the range of cases considered by magistrates. That would enable justice to be delivered more locally, closer to communities. It could also help victims, because magistrates courts are less intimidating than Crown courts, and cases would also be dealt with more promptly. Moreover, research shows that significant financial savings would be achieved. Such a reinvigorating of magistrates courts and local justice can readily take place by enacting sections 154, 280 and 281 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Minister has confirmed to me that such a review is taking place, but it should not be carried out in a vacuum; it should form part of the consultation.

Work in local magistrates courts underpins the legal profession in a town such as Lowestoft. Like magistrates, local solicitors know and understand the area in which they work, and they are immediately on hand, available at all hours to provide advice and guidance to their clients. They very much take on the role of a trusted adviser, gaining the respect and confidence of their clients who know them and know that they will do their best in representing them during what can be a harrowing and traumatic experience.

There is a worry that, without local courts, local solicitors firms could struggle to survive and local people would have to obtain advice from solicitors offices miles away from where they live. It is vital in Lowestoft that we continue to have a wide range of independent solicitor practices in the town.

In response to the consultation, Lowestoft solicitors will come forward with an alternative proposal for the Minister to consider. I urge him to give it his full consideration, as it will have been produced with the benefit of local knowledge, taking into account the concerns that I have raised.

Sir Roger, I am grateful to you for listening to me. I now hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

I do not wish to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has said, but so many of his points apply to my constituents too. Ensuring that the vulnerable are not in vehicles with people with whom they would rather not spend the hour before going to court is hugely important. We have a paucity of broadband, but we have a paucity of buses and railways also. Physically getting around our county is difficult enough, so we cannot put up with the removal of vital services.

Suffolk is one of England’s 48 ceremonial counties and the eighth largest by area, but conversely it is ranked 32nd by population size. Should the proposals to close Bury and Lowestoft courts succeed, we will have, as my hon. Friend has said, the worst court-to-square-mile ratio, and be one of only six counties to operate a single court, based, in our case, far to the east in Ipswich.

Ironically, it is perhaps because of our size and relative sparseness that the magistrates court in Bury St Edmunds is under threat. I agree, however, that some change may be right and proper. Government figures have put utilisation of Bury court at 39%, with parts of it not used at all. Additionally, the accommodation in the current building is inadequate, and its annual running cost of more than £250,000 is undoubtedly high. Closing the service at its current location will save the taxpayer £206,000, recoverable in seven months, but one cannot put a price on local access to justice. In a system that claims to guarantee legal rights, access to justice sits at its foundations, for all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. That is the most basic requirement, and indeed it was the cornerstone of the Magna Carta which, incidentally, was planned by the barons in 1214 in Bury St Edmunds. One can see, therefore, why we are a little incensed.

I urge that due consideration be given to the effect on the justices of the peace, who do sterling work. As they have said to me, they know their communities. They save the legal system a great deal and add enormously to the effectiveness of local justice. What my constituents demand, as do local law professionals, the police and crime commissioner, the high sheriff, the lord lieutenant, and numerous other stakeholders, is local access to justice. It is neither feasible nor reasonable to ask the people of Suffolk—the people in my constituency—to travel 45 miles on the A14, which is often blocked solid by traffic and accidents, to access justice in Ipswich. Because of local transport cuts and the rural nature of our community, that is exactly what will be asked of them and I worry that it will be impossible for the poorest and the most vulnerable, the exact people who need justice the most.

Economically, the arguments for closing the magistrates court are compelling, and I accept that changes can be made, but we must keep a court in Bury. A superb opportunity exists, if the Ministry of Justice were to feel inclined, to use Bury as a trial and have a more peripatetic approach to justice that would allow it to come back into our communities. The consultation allows for that kind of approach to making the necessary improvements and savings, and the Ministry has stressed to me, during our many conversations, that it is looking for good ideas.

Integrating the court into the public service village in Bury could provide it with improved accommodation that could be shared when not in use, thereby delivering more cost-efficient services across the board. Such new ideas can be developed, with fines and other services being provided online, integrated for vulnerable people who do not have broadband access—I reiterate that I have villages with streets with no access. That suggestion is completely in line with the Cabinet Office’s One Public Estate programme. However, when one Department is in the process of advocating and advancing such a programme it seems counterproductive for another to cause panic by stating that it proposes to close a service that is so patently suitable for inclusion in the programme, instead suggesting that it relocate it to a town some 26 miles away. It appears, not for the first time, that we need better joined-up government, and not just between our local authorities and services. Such a move would keep access to justice local. It would locate the court adjacent to the NHS and social services, which will, it is anticipated, take up residence. Consequently, constituents —particularly those who are vulnerable—would have all the support they needed when using the court.

The design of the next phase of development is still being formulated. Specific requirements such as cells and van docks could be incorporated at the start, rather than retrospectively fitted. To that end, I and other colleagues in Suffolk have strongly urged the Justice Secretary in an open letter to look favourably on any such proposal and to keep justice local.

As always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Roger. I thank my three hon. Friends for their contributions today. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate, but I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) for her contribution and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for his intervention.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear. There is no doubt that all three Members have been diligent and conscientious in how they have spoken up for their constituents. They have corresponded with me and met me. Indeed, they have enforced the point by having this debate. I have to say that I have learned a lesson. I tried to jest a little in oral questions when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney that the figures he cited reflected the low levels of crime in Suffolk. I had the last word in the Chamber, but that has rebounded, because he has been able to come back to me this morning. Nevertheless, he has eloquently put forward the arguments for his constituents, as have the other Members.

I again emphasise that the consultation on the reform of the court system in England and Wales is genuine. Indeed, the consultation asks people to make submissions if they can suggest alternative places where the court can sit. There is this notion of the majesty of the court building as we have all known it for centuries and decades, but the 21st century has brought about enormous changes, and with those changes we must recognise that the traditional court building can also change. That is why I have specifically asked for contributions from members of the public and the legal profession if they can suggest alternative venues, such as town halls or other civic buildings, where we might not need to sit for five days a week, but where we could sit simply for a day or two.

I accept the Minister’s point; we all support the overall principle of trying to achieve efficiency savings in public services and so on, but does he appreciate that if there is no alternative, it is about having a minimum level of access to justice and the concern that we might be going beyond that? If that is the case, we should accept that we may simply have to preserve the current building, for example in Lowestoft.

I hear loud and clear what my hon. Friend says, but I will come on to what access really means in the 21st century shortly, if he bears with me. I make clear that any proposals from the consultation will be seriously considered by me and my officials. I take on board the figures that have been mentioned for the number of courts in Suffolk and the surrounding areas and the concerns expressed on the physical building being in Suffolk.

I also take on board what my hon. Friends say on travel times, but I turn to what precisely “access to justice” means. Access to justice in 21st-century Britain is different from what it has meant in centuries and decades before. Before, it meant proximity—the ability to go physically to a court, with all the majesty that goes with it—but the world has changed. People now work online. They do things from the comfort of their sitting room. People can now sit on a Saturday evening in the comfort of their armchair and, by use of their mobile phone, go online and plead guilty to low-level offences in a magistrates court, such as low-level traffic offences or the avoidance of payment of a TV licence. Likewise, people will be able, by use of their mobile phones, to pay any fines that may be imposed.

In like manner, access to justice can mean that victims and witnesses, particularly those who are vulnerable, do not have to go to a court and experience all the stress that goes with that. They can go to a room in their locality and, through video conferencing, access a court located elsewhere. Solicitors and barristers no longer have to go to court and hang around for two or three hours to have a five or 10-minute hearing before a judge. They can arrange a telephone conference. Lawyers on both sides of the case can sit in the comfort of their offices and a judge can sit in the comfort of his chambers, and at a given time the three of them can teleconference. That is happening. That is access to justice without moving, from people’s homes and offices.

I am coming to modern technology. I appreciate the difficulties of broadband. I appreciate the IT teething problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. The Ministry of Justice is spending £130 million to ensure that the Courts and Tribunals Service will have an efficient communications system, fit for the 21st century. Of course there will be problems. Nothing will ever be perfect, but that is not to say that when we encounter a problem, we step back. Judiciaries and legal systems across the rest of the world are moving on. If Britain is to stay as a global legal player, we must move and recognise the way that access to justice, technology and the legal process now operate. We are working on the IT problems.

My hon. Friend spoke of his concern that the trials were being carried out only in metropolitan areas and said that that reflected badly on the service that people get in rural areas. Let me be absolutely clear: the service that people receive throughout England and Wales will be uniform. The pilots are carried out in metropolitan areas to ensure that the technology is tested against a whole range of cases, and that is more available in metropolitan areas than in rural areas, where volumes tend to be lower.

In the limited time remaining, which is about 90 seconds, I hope I can sum up by saying that the consultation is genuine. I welcome alternative proposals, whether they are on the siting of courts, the use of video conferencing or other measures that we may not even have thought of. I reassure my hon. Friend that this is a genuine consultation. I have taken on board all that he and my other hon. Friends have said, and I again commend him for having taken the trouble to secure this debate. I hope that I have given him some comfort that I will reflect carefully on all that he and my hon. Friends have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.