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Justice: Magistrates’ and County Courts

Volume 722: debated on Monday 15 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects on local justice of the closure of magistrates’ and county courts and of holding such courts in multi-use buildings.

I beg your pardon; I am not playing for time. My Lords, the Government are committed to the principle of local justice. However, our court estate must reflect changes in population, transport and communication links, technology, workload and the needs of today’s communities. These are the factors that will be in mind when judging where to locate courts.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give a commitment that, in making final decisions on which county and magistrates’ courts will be closed, they will take into account: the fact that local justices and local courts have been the bedrock of criminal justice in this country for many centuries, and successfully so; that the cost and inconvenience to public users of distant courts is considerable, and for the one-third who have to use public transport is unsupportable; that the magistrates’ courts reckon that only a third of the 100-plus magistrates’ courts closures are justifiable: and, finally, that the better alternative would be to revert to using multi-purpose buildings, such as town halls, which would be much cheaper?

My Lords, the attraction of multi-purpose buildings has a superficial appeal. The problem is that many of them that might offer that up have no facilities for custody or for victims and witnesses and poor security for professional staff and judges. Therefore, although we will look at the case for that use, the best way is to have modern, purpose-built courts that can dispense justice efficiently. On the first part of my noble friend’s question, yes, we are well aware of the long-standing role of magistrates. Next year will be the 750th anniversary of magistrates in this country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former president of the Sussex Magistrates’ Association, and I am sorry to say that the magistrates’ court at Lewes is currently under threat of closure. Does the Minister agree that the more work we can channel into the magistrates’ courts, the better? If so, why do we not now consider raising their jurisdiction limit from six months’ imprisonment to 12 months’ imprisonment?

My Lords, I take note of that advice. One of the objectives in the Government’s review of sentencing, which will be published shortly, is to ensure that a proper volume of work goes through the magistrates’ courts.

Apart from the inconvenience to the public, is there not a danger that, when justice becomes less local, justices will not be able to reflect the prevalence of certain offences in their district in the sentences that they give? Is there not also a danger that good justices will be lost to the system because of the extra travelling time involved?

My Lords, to a certain extent those are concerns, and we will keep them under close review. However, we live in a more mobile age and justices will be given assistance with travel costs. The longest journey to court—this is an extreme under the new proposals—will be 40 miles, and most journeys will be much less. I understand the concerns but they do not outweigh the fact that, as the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said:

“It is obvious that a number of courts in different parts of England and Wales no longer fulfil any sufficiently valuable public purpose”.

My Lords, why was Bow Street magistrates’ court, home of the Bow Street Runners, the first court and a listed building, allowed to be sold as a hotel when, I am told, there was an offer from a group of ex-police officers to buy it and turn it into a museum? Is the Minister also aware that it was the only court without a blue light outside because Queen Victoria did not like it?

I was not aware of that. I do not know whether this was undertaken by the previous Administration but the most distinguished ex-Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is nodding. He obviously did the dirty deed. One of the things that I have asked for in the review is that we keep a check on which courts are listed buildings and what is likely to happen to them.

In none of the Minister’s answers has he mentioned the victims of crime having to attend magistrates’ courts or county courts that are some distance further from their homes than they otherwise would be. Is he aware of the number of cases that are adjourned because somebody does not turn up to court? A victim of crime may have to attend court two, three or four times before their case is heard. What assessment has the Minister made of the financial, let alone emotional, cost of victims returning to court several times to have their case heard?

I think the roar of approval is very apt. It is something that we are looking at very carefully. One of the issues that I know the Lord Chancellor is looking at is the almost casual ease with which adjournments are agreed to. As well as good justice, we want to see efficient and quick justice in the magistrates’ courts. Certainly, the point that the noble Baroness refers to is one that needs to be addressed with some urgency.

Can the Minister indicate the Government’s response to the 10 specific recommendations made by the Magistrates’ Association last month in the light of future plans mooted abroad by the Lord Chancellor? In asking that question, I declare an interest both as a former magistrate and, in that capacity, as someone who has had to oversee the merger and closure of courts.

My Lords, I assure the noble Viscount that we have been in the closest touch with the Magistrates’ Association. We have listened carefully to its recommendations. I hope some of its concerns will be reflected in the statement that we will make in response to these consultations before the end of the year.