The announcement of the proposed closure of 91 courts came as little surprise to watchers of the Ministry of Justice runes. Money is very tight, court work has reduced and courts are apparently being under-used. The new Lord Chancellor discussed the closures when he appeared before the Justice Select Committee this week. He regretted any diminution in local justice and committed to consulting on any closures. He said that no court should be so far from users that it took more than an hour to get there.
So far so good. But the history of recent closures reveals a pattern. All have been open to consultation, all closures have been overwhelmingly opposed, but I know of no court that has been spared. Campaigners fought hard to spare the Burton-on-Trent court from closure. In 2010 Barry Whyman, then Chair of the Courts Board for the West Midlands said “given the transport difficulties and the fact so many people would be disadvantaged and would have to travel to get justice, we felt there was a strong case Burton shouldn’t close”. But the Burton Court is on the closure list published this week. Given the Chancellor’s commitment to having no court more than an hour away, it’s intriguing that “concerns were also raised that claimants would have to travel to Derby or Stafford — a bus ride of more than two hours away — to attend court”.
Local MPs have campaigned hard to save local courts and have highlighted flaws in the process. Simon Reevell, when MP for Dewsbury, wrote “Imagine someone who lives in Wensleydale in rural North Yorkshire or any of the hundreds of similar rural areas in England and Wales. Should he find himself accused of a criminal offence he will appear before the magistrates in Northallerton. Or at least he will try. The first bus leaves at 9.45am and doesn’t arrive until just short of midday meaning that even a ‘not before 12’ marking wouldn’t help and the case would have to be marked ‘not before 2’. It would also have to finish in time for the 3.35pm bus, otherwise it’s an overnight stay in Bedale!”.
John Hayes MP claimed his local court was closed by stealth. A consultation on the closure of Spalding Magistrates’ Court was launched by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) last year, but locals complained that it was difficult to access and their MP described it as “dense to the point where it may discourage responses”. After an incident where someone fell from a step in the courtroom, fewer cases were listed at Spalding: “constituents have told me the court is being closed by stealth,” he said. “Local justice matters and access to courts matters. At the end of the day, these are the kinds of facilities that are the beating heart of a community”. The closure of the Spalding court was announced in December 2014 although HMCTS did admit that “the travel time can be more than an hour from the more remote areas of the county”.
Who will oppose these new court closures knowing how unsuccessful previous campaigns have been? The people who suffer most from court closure are ordinary users who usually have no access to the court car park and can’t afford to drive any way. Even MPs are powerless to prevent the diminution of local justice. The Magistrates’ Association seems to have given up opposing court closures. In 2011 the MA paid for legal advice to help local benches seeking judicial reviews against the closure of their local courts, and the then Chairman expressed concern at the move to regional centres: “justice should be delivered so that the public can see it being done.” But this week the MA expressed no opposition to the new closure programme: “We accept that there is scope for efficiencies in the system and that frankly some courts are underused due to a variety of reasons”. Without the representative body for magistrates taking up arms, any national fightback is unlikely. So I predict that all the courts slated for closure will shut their doors.
One of the reasons why courts will close is that power over courts has gradually been taken away from local areas. Before 2003, magistrates’ courts were owned by local authorities and managed by local Magistrates’ Courts Committees. So local magistrates managed the budget, hired staff, and decided on court closures. The Labour administration decided to centralise courts administration in Whitehall, and take administrative power away from magistrates. Little by little (a story told here), all local control or influence over magistrates’ courts has been lost. So the process of deciding which courts should be closed in 2015 will have been made entirely behind closed doors, with only civil servants and judges party to the discussions. The public, local politicians and local agencies have no opportunity to influence the shaping of court policy. They can submit their own response to the consultation but recent history suggests their responses are unlikely to lead to any change.
The Lord Chancellor is concerned by the threat to local justice. He suggested to the Select Committee that magistrates’ and county court cases could be heard in non court buildings such as Council Chambers. This is an idea previously floated by the Lord Chief Justice. There is no reason why most magistrates’ court cases shouldn’t be heard in ordinary buildings. In the USA many community courts and courts for homeless people are held in community centres and hostels. But I fear health and safety concerns may prevent this innovation. Use of the secure dock in magistrates’ courts has increased and the recent death of a custody officer will heighten concerns about any defendant coming to a court from prison. So I really hope the idea of very local hearings will get off the ground but, without local influence on courts, I think the odds are against.