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Courts: Magistrates’ Courts

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received about proposals to close a number of magistrates’ courts in England and Wales.

My Lords, public consultation took place last summer on proposals to reform the court estate in England and Wales. More than 2,500 responses were received. The decisions to close 93 magistrates’ courts and 49 county courts were announced last December.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. I wonder whether she fully appreciates the value over 600 years of the unpaid magistracy in England and Wales. The closure of many courts is bound to lead to increased costs to parties and to witnesses and to make access to justice more difficult. Might it not be better to enhance magistrates’ courts rather than reduce their significance by, for example, adding other items in the Government's programme, where there should be adequate facilities for pursuing arbitration, consumer complaints, and so on? The policy is leading to increased costs, not reduced costs.

I thank the noble Lord for that question, but I think that he is not right. Where courts are located has depended very much on historic chance. As things have changed, as demography has changed, as people have become more mobile, it makes sense to look at where those courts are. Where courts are too close to each other, it makes no sense to have an underutilised facility. Far better, as is planned under this programme, to make sure that we have newer courts which build in the kind of facilities that the noble Lord has just talked about, so that we can improve the estate rather than diminish it. Overall, there are major savings to be had by that, some of which can then be ploughed back into those improved courts.

My Lords, has the justice department undertaken an impact assessment on summary justice, particularly when courts are closed or moved to a different location? I declare an interest. I chair a public inquiry on behalf of the Magistrates’ Association on the delivery of local justice. Will the justice department give evidence to that inquiry, with particular reference to closure and its impact on the local justice process?

Yes, indeed, economic impact assessments were made in every instance and they were taken very seriously. It is extremely important that we secure access to justice. As for the inquiry to which the noble Lord refers, I will take that back to the Ministry of Justice, but I think it is extremely likely that the ministry will be happy to give evidence. It is extremely important that this is got right and the analysis undertaken of how justice is to be delivered is very reassuring that the programme should improve facilities.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness deal with one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that what we ought to be doing is enhancing the work of the magistrates’ courts so far as we can and diverting work from the Crown Court?

I have asked whether, if cases were diverted from the Crown Court, this would make any difference to the level of work in the magistrates’ courts and was reassured that that could be accommodated under the new plans. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the utilisation of the courts is not as high as it should be. In many cases the use of the magistrates’ courts is around 64 per cent. This programme brings it up to 75 per cent. It is much easier to focus better facilities in those circumstances.

My Lords, will the Minister please inform the House about the extent of the work of the rural proofing team in the Ministry of Justice? Is this team calculating in detail the extra cost to the customer—witnesses, defendants and victims—of accessing justice in centres which are now sometimes 30 or 40 miles away and to which there is usually no public transport? In other words, how do you access justice in rural England when you do not have a car?

That very important question was fully looked at in the assessment. At the moment, 90 per cent of people could reach the courts within an hour using public transport. This figure diminishes slightly to 85 per cent. Every case, especially the case of the rural courts, was looked at very closely to see what the impact was, what the demography of the relevant area was, who was likely to, and did, use the courts, and what the impact would be on those people. One survey indicated that only 18 per cent of people using the courts came by public transport. However, that does not mean to say that we should neglect the needs of that 18 per cent.

These proposals coupled with the ferocious attack on legal aid are in my view a false economy. Is it not clear that those who are most vulnerable will indeed pay a very heavy price for this absurd policy?

Not surprisingly, I very much disagree. The provision in the courts is woefully inadequate in many cases. The estate needs to be improved in many instances to make adequate provision for victims and witnesses to ensure that they are secure in terms of defendants in custody and to be made accessible to people with disabilities. In many cases—this follows on from the policy of the previous Government—the courts are not in that state. This assists in trying to improve things.

My Lords, fortunately, the gist of my question has already been raised. I would like only to reinforce the point that for those living in rural areas the savings gained from any court transfer would throw an extra cost on to those who do not have cars. The time taken to get to the new courts for many people who live in the countryside and do not have cars will impose an enormous burden. I urge the Minister to look at this again very carefully before closing down many of the courts in rural areas.

As I mentioned in an earlier answer, that has been given very careful consideration. Each grouping has been looked at individually to see what the impact will be.