The tension between local and central services has played out in government over the last century. The management of the courts is a good example. This briefing gives an overview of how and why the administration of magistrates’ courts in England and Wales was centralised in 2003 and what implications that has had for local and other stakeholders.
Before 2003, magistrates’ courts were run by committees of local magistrates – magistrates’ courts committees. Each committee managed all the courts in their area with the help of a chief executive, and of a justice’s clerk, who advised on legal matters. The Auld Report 2001 recommended centralising the administration of all courts and this was implemented two years later.
Supporters of the centralised court service (HMCTS) say it has achieved economies of scale, provided more career opportunities for staff, enabled courts to work together better and brought about a more effective system of justice. Critics suggest that centralisation has led to: unnecessary court closures, the disempowerment of magistrates, the disappearance of the justices’ clerk as a powerful local figure, courts become distanced from local government, reduced local accountability and low morale among court staff. Since this report was published in 2013 magistrates’ courts have been further centralised through the abolition of local justice areas.