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May 14, 2013

Does it matter who runs magistrates’ courts?

Why does the closure of every library inspire massive public protest while plans to close 142 local courts (put forward in 2010) prompted scarcely a whimper? Part of the answer might be that local people who use magistrates’ courts didn’t know the closures were going to happen. Another, that those who use courts are a very different group from the users of libraries. But perhaps the most important reason for lack of protest is that local people, in the form of magistrates, justices’ clerks, local staff and local authorities had lost their power to influence how the courts were run a decade before.

New Labour brought in huge changes to the justice system – changing the role of the Lord Chancellor, creating the Supreme Court, bringing the Youth Justice Board into being. They also centralised the management of the magistrates’ courts in 2003. This was a revolutionary change which led to the lessening of the power and influence of magistrates and justices’ clerks, and to a severing of the connection between local authorities and courts. So much change was going on at the time that this one received little media coverage. But it was one of the biggest moves towards centralisation made under New Labour. But did it bring the benefits it was meant to?

Magistrates’ criminal courts used to be paid for by local authorities and run by committees of local magistrates who employed a Chief Executive and a Justice’s Clerk. Each area ran its own budget and had flexibility to make decisions about staffing, building and so on. The local council was involved because they often owned the court buildings, they paid themselves for some of the costs of administering courts and were the conduit for the whole budget.

The intention of centralising was ostensibly to make the courts more efficient and effective. But there may also have been an agenda to curb local influence. On the data available, it looks as if the administration of the courts is much cheaper than it used to be. But it is not clear whether it was essential to centralise in order to cut costs. And centralisation has led to some negative effects

  • The closure of many more courts
  • Weakened links between the courts and local authorities, who provide many of the services offenders rely on
  • A feeling of disempowerment among magistrates

There is no clamour, except among magistrates, to re-localise the administration of the courts. But greater accountability, local understanding of justice, and local innovation might be achieved through reversing at least some of the 2003 centralisation programme.