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November 2, 2014

How to restore local justice

Few think-tanks devote much time to the diminution of local justice.  But Politeia has just produced a short but inspiring pamphlet calling for local justice to be restored, Its worth getting a hard copy, particularly for David Howarth’s introduction.  He was LibDem spokesman on Justice but resigned from parliament before the last election to resume his career as a law academic.  He has been leader of Cambridge Council, so understands local government too.  He points out that that strategic questions – about uniformity as oppose to responsiveness to the differences between individual cases, the legitimacy of professional expertise as oppose to popular participation, and the need for economies of scale at the expense of local accessibility – are seen as relevant to health and education, but have been sidelined by criminal justice policy, in particular, courts policy.  In this he says “all recent governments have shared the same approach, of favouring uniformity, professional expertise and economies of scale” and that this has gone largely unnoticed. David Howarth is a great supporter of the lay magistracy and suggests that it could meet both “sides” of this policy debate, were it supported.

In the pamphlet MP Simon Reevell argues strongly against the closure of magistrates’ courts and give some great examples of how far away courts now are from users.  Someone from Wenseydale, West Yorkhire, who needs to get to their nearest court in Northallerton, will be hard put to get there by public transport.  The first bus leaves at 9.45am and doesn’t arrive till just before midday.  The offender could stipulate he needs to have an afternoon slot but, even then, the last bus back leaves at 3.35pm and could easily be missed.  Simon also points out that cases in magistrates’ courts are no longer covered by the press, so local people don’t know what is going on in the courts: “great swathes of rural England are without a visible representation of the law”.

John Howson, former Deputy Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, now County Councillor in Oxfordshire, argues persuasively that magistrates’ hearings don’t have to be held in purpose-built court buildings “that courtroom can be a basic committee room, provided there are places to seat the judicial officers, the clerk and the lawyers for the defence and the prosecution, somewhere for the defendant and any witnesses to be located, as well as a section set aside for the general public – and any room would do”.  I agree with him.  Having seen a homeless court in USA held in a homeless shelter, I know “off-site” court-rooms can work.  Of course there are risks, but most offenders do not appear in court from custody, and most are extremely unlikely to lash out.

Even the Lord Chief Justice supports having magistrates’ hearings in non-court buildings closer to the offenders’ homes and the local criminal justice agencies.  But I’m afraid it ain’t going to happen.  The forces of risk aversion and centralisation are far too strong.