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Crown Court (Barrow)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Sackville.]

10.16 pm

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness) : I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to initiate an Adjournment debate on the proposals for the future of the Barrow in Furness Crown court. I speak in a dual capacity as the Member for Barrow and Furness and as a former practising solicitor in the north-west of England. The consultation paper proposals relate to the Crown courts of Barrow in Furness and Kendal, but I confine my remarks to the Barrow in Furness Crown court, though many of the general comments apply equally to the Kendal Crown court, which comes within the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling).

The Barrow in Furness Crown court building was constructed in the mid-1950s and was opened by the then Home Secretary, Mr. R. A. Butler. The building and its facilities are typical of the many similar court buildings that were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1986, a scrutiny was commissioned to consider the best structure for the operation and management of the Crown court system in England and Wales, and it is to the proposals for the Crown court in Barrow in Furness that I address my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

The consultation paper, which was issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department in October 1988, is entirely devoid of any facts or figures to support the statement and opinions that are contained within it. In a sentence, the consultation paper is a disgrace to rational debate and discussion. It bears all the hallmarks of a civil servant sitting behind his desk in Whitehall or Preston, thinking of his own administrative convenience, picking up a map of Cumbria and a ruler and measuring the distance between Barrow and Carlisle, Barrow and Kendal or Barrow and Lancaster, and reaching conclusions, while being blind to the fact that between Barrow and all those places lie mountains, lakes, rivers and estuaries, and probably the worst road system in England.

The consultation paper begins :

"The results of subsequent examination of the Crown Courts at Barrow and Kendal, which are operated from Preston and Carlisle respectively, have led to the conclusion that these satellites are inefficient, in that they lead to delays in trial, are wasteful of resources and that there is a strong case for closure."

The consultation paper's proposals for Barrow state :

"Barrow is situated on the west coast of Cumbria 48 miles from Lancaster by road and 32 miles by rail Crown Court sittings are held in a Magistrates' Court alongside the police station. The courtroom is adequate, though dark and dingy. Facilities for the judge, jurors, the Bar, solicitors and witnesses are minimal. Prisoners are brought from Risley remand centre, Warrington nearly 100 miles away, and have to stay in police cells with totally inadequate provision for hygiene, catering and exercise The court is administered and served from Preston, more than 60 miles distant."

When it details the disadvantages of the present system, the points in the consultation paper immediately invite questions. The document states :

"The short sitting day which can be achieved at each court, the small case load and interval between sessions leads to inefficient listings and delays."

That invites the question : why short sitting days? The document continues :

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"A case not reached at one session must wait at least four weeks before it can be listed again."


"A case which may last two or more days is usually transferred to Lancaster for trial."


"There will continue to be an inefficient use of scarce resources in terms of judicial and staff time."

Why? It states :

"costs incurred in travel and subsistence by members of staff serving Barrow from Preston will also continue."

Perhaps therein lies the nub. The document states :

"At Barrow a great deal of money would have to be spent to bring the cell accommodation up to reasonable standards. While this would improve the conditions for prisoners, the cell area would still be shared with the local police, a practice which is accepted only with great reluctance by the Prison Service."

I query that statement because there is no evidence to back it up. The benefits listed in the Lord Chancellor's consultation paper include :

"The cessation of sittings at Barrow will yield significant savings in costs to the court, prison and probation services." However, it totally fails to take into account the increased costs that will be incurred by those who have to attend the court at Lancaster, principally witnesses, the police, solicitors, jurors, probation officers, magistrates and social service personnel. As another benefit, the document states :

"Prisoners would be dealt with less delay and more efficiency and would not be subject to such degrading conditions as those at Barrow."

The document continues :

"It is appreciated that some witnesses may be inconvenienced in terms of the distance they will have to travel to court, but their loss of earnings, travel and subsistence expenses would be reimbursed. Some justices would be similarly affected but again their expenses would be reimbursed The closure of Barrow would extend the level of disenfranchisement, but not significantly, since although the area is large, the population density is comparatively low." In marshalling my arguments against the proposals, I can do no better than quote from some of the many representations and responses submitted which oppose the proposals in the consultation paper. Perhaps one of the most damaging criticisms is made by the chief constable of Cumbria, Mr. Leslie Sharp, who said :

"As far as Barrow is concerned I have serious reservations about the possible closure of the Crown Court. It is accepted that costs for the Judiciary and your staff would be reduced, but this would be at the expense of additional costs to the police and other witnesses. I see additional travelling, subsistence and overtime payments for police officers being far in excess of the sum you have quoted in respect of the Judiciary. Another issue directly related to this point is the loss of police time from operational duties. When cases are heard at Barrow, officers are able to deal with other tasks and duties whilst waiting for their case to be heard or immediately it finishes. If work is transferred to Lancaster, we will lose officers for a full day without the ability to use them for other purposes. As far as witnesses are concerned, whilst their expenses would be reimbursed, inevitably their costs are going to be much higher if they have to travel to Lancaster.

Another point of major concern is that many people will be reluctant to travel from Barrow-in-Furness to another court. There was a recent example of this when an appeal on behalf of Manhattan's Night Club at Barrow against the curbing of their public entertainments licensing hours, was to be held before Lancaster Crown Court. Many elderly residents who had attended the initial hearing before the local

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authority, and later an appeal before the Magistrates' Court, expressed reluctance to travel to Lancaster. When representations were made to your Department, it resulted in that case being transferred back to the Barrow Court. If we cannot gather and encourage community support in this type of case, and when criminal offences have been committed, there is a distinct possibility our activities in these areas of responsibilities will be seriously affected. There have also been occasions when witnesses have failed to attend the Crown Court at Barrow, and it has been a fairly simple task to locate them during the time of the Court sitting. This would not be possible if cases were held at Lancaster and could result in adjournments which would add to the Court's backlog of work." He continues :

"I am surprised to see that the amount of time spent on Crown Court business at Barrow has decreased over the past four years at a time when there has been an increased case load. This is perhaps merely an indication that more cases are being diverted to other courts. If the Crown Court at Barrow sat more regularly, I would suggest that any backlog of work could be disposed of more quickly. There have been occasions in the recent past, for example in July this year, when Court sittings were reduced from three days to one and then in September when Court business was cancelled because of the unavailability of staff. On those occasions it would seem little consideration was given to defendants, which is one of the points you make in the Consultative Paper at paragraph 3, that the court delays adversely affect defendants held in custody and could prejudice the right to justice.

I cannot agree with the statement that the Court Room at Barrow is dark and dingy. In my opinion, the court is reasonably comfortable and provides good accommodation for officials and the public. The same cannot be said about Lancaster, which is a rather depressing and uncomfortable building."

He concludes :

"I do think it is important that every effort is made to retain the Crown Court at Barrow. I am sure you know that there are plans for a new Magistrates' Court to be constructed in that area in the early 1990s and this could present an ideal opportunity for a joint development with your Department."

That was the opinion of, and representations from, the police. I turn to the representations made by the judges who serve the area. His Honour Judge Sir Sanderson Temple and His Honour Judge Brian Duckworth state :

"There is a long tradition of criminal jurisdiction Barrow was given Quarter Sessions status after the 1939/45 war, specifically to obviate the necessity of litigation and those involved therein having to travel to Lancaster or Preston."

Barrow and Kendal are both

"active, prosperous communities in their own right, and centres for the surrounding countryside entitled to enjoy Crown Court status and facilities. If the work is sent to Lancaster, it will involve substantial expense and inconvenience for parties, jurors and witnesses from Barrow, the train time is similar"--

1 hours--

"but there is no through bus service : the train fare is £4.80 For those who live in outlying areas, the problems will be greater and will involve considerable hardship it is unlikely that magistrates from Furness will be able to play any real part in the administration of justice at Crown Court level, and that jurors will not be recruited from those outlying areas to go to Lancaster or Preston ; thus the inhabitants of those areas will be denied the opportunity to participate in Crown Court justice by way of jury service. By reason of the extra travelling expenses incurred by those involved any administrative savings achieved by consolidating the work at Lancaster will be largely nullified.

Unless and until the repairs at Lancaster Castle are completed and the Castle's future as a Crown Court building confirmed, the provision of Court facilities there must be considered unsatisfactory and uncertain.

Considerations of administrative convenience and economy must not overwhelm public convenience. Ever since the Statute of Westminister II (1285) the concept of the Courts

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travelling the country to bring justice to the people has been well established. Thus the people of South Cumbria are entitled to have their own Crown Courts, as are the local Magistrates, and they should not have to travel further afield. It has long been a Common Law principle that a man shall be entitled to be tried in his own County ; and as a matter of public relations, justice should be done and be seen to be done within the community where the litigation arises. It is hoped that these proposals proceed no further It is understood that their Honours Judge Edmondson and Judge Bell, who also have connections with the area have already expressed similar concern to the Circuit Administrator.

Those are the words of the judges ; let us turn now to the magistrates. The clerk of the magistrates for the petty session divisions of Barrow in Furness with Bootle and Lonsdale North says : "It was the unanimous request of Justices that I write to you deploring the taking of such a step. I am asked in particular to refer to the basic concept of criminal law that justice should be delivered on a local basis in order to maintain confidence in the justice system. Further, whilst Magistrates' personal convenience cannot be placed above the requirements of justice, the difficulties in supplying Magistrates to sit at Lancaster or Preston, as opposed to Barrow in Furness, are only too clear. It seems to the Magistrates appropriate therefore that sittings continue in Barrow in Furness to ensure the local element in sittings of the superior court." So speak the magistrates. Let me now quote from a letter written by the chairman of the bench of North Lonsdale, Major Gordon Hudson, who says that the consultation paper is

"unduly weighted towards cutting administrative costs at the considerable inconvenience and expense to those attending courts. Reimbursement in the circumstances is an inadequate recompense. In particular the stop gap solution of only five years at Lancaster is a fresh, quite unacceptable solution."

The local Law Society branch, Furness and district, also made representations stating :

"This Society strongly opposes the closure of the Crown Court at Barrow."

Mentioning the delay mentioned in the consultation paper, it states :

"The statistics given show receipts, but not disposal rates. From the figures given, however, it is clear that the Crown Court at Barrow has increased in efficiency during the period 1984 to 1987 in that in 1984 100 cases were received in 128 hours of sitting time compared with 200 cases in 116 hours in 1987. Cases are being dealt with more quickly and this Society is convinced that the disposals rate of the Barrow Court are far better than many city courts the facilities at Barrow are far better than those at the Court which it is proposed will take all Barrow cases, i.e. Lancaster. At Lancaster, there are pitifully inadequate facilities for the interviewing of witnesses, and the public waiting areas are extremely lacking in comfort. The cell accommodation is also poor. One argument put forward in support of closure is that the travelling time of remand prisoners would be reduced. The only saving in this regard would be 1 hour each way, and this must be compared to the similar travelling time of solicitors, police, and probation officers and witnesses if cases were dealt with at Lancaster.

Furthermore, there are presently plans to construct new Magistrates' and County Courts at Barrow. If the LDC is prepared to expend monies in the construction of new courts in Barrow, then it would be prudent and sensible for those plans to include new Crown Court accommodation. The present facilities would then be upgraded at little extra cost."

It also deals with expense and the purported savings outlined in the consultation paper :

"Any costs saved in administration by transferring all court business to Lancaster would be lost in the additional expense to the court in paying witnesses to appear, to the Police and Probation services, both in increased travelling and waiting time, and in time lost from other work, and to the legal aid fund in meeting the cost of solicitors travelling to

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Lancaster. Solicitors will also have to spend more time out of their offices, to the detriment of their other work. Administration costs are therefore only the tip of the iceberg, and it would be wrong to base a decision for closure upon this aspect alone without a full study of the additional costs to be borne by transferring all cases to Lancaster.

The consultation paper indicates that closure would not significantly extend the level of disenfranchisement of jurors. To close the Crown Court at Barow would remove approximately 80,000 adults from the list of potential jurors, and defendants would no longer be tried by their local peers with local knowledge In conclusion, this Society considers that the paper's arguments in support of closure are, at best, not fully thought out and that insufficient weight has been given to the questions of the increased costs and inconvenience to those involved."

Those are the words of Mr. David Dawson, secretary of the Furness and District Law Society.

So far, the police, the judges, the magistrates and the local law society are opposed to the proposals. Let us consider the views of someone who is not involved in the legal profession. Among the many representations that I have received was a letter from the Cumbria-Westmorland Federation of Women's Institutes. The letter, from Mrs. Rawson, is eloquent about being tried locally :

"It has hitherto been the right of defendants to be judged by their peers within their own locality. It must be obvious that the customs and conventions characteristic of a community are best known to those resident in its locale, and consequently it follows that those who contravene what are locally regarded as essentials to living there, should be judged first by those who understand them It is easy to fortell what will ultimately occur--the ratepayers in the communities in this area, who would once have been eligible for Jury Service will become disenfranchised--the argument then being that the cost to transport so many people to the seat of judgment would prove too great and selection will no longer be made from amongst them."

So far as I am aware, no single organisation or individual which has been involved in the consultation process supports the proposals for the Barrow in Furness Crown court. Two local solicitors from Barrow in Furness made representations which embodied my earlier comments to the Furness and District Law Society.

Miss Barbara Forrester, a local solicitor who specialises in criminal work in the Crown court, wrote :

"It is virtually unheard of for any defendant to criticise the facilities at Barrow. It is also far easier for relatives of defendants to visit them at Barrow than at Lancaster."

Mr. Kenneth Fisher, another local solicitor, wrote that on 15 January he was involved in a case that originated at Barrow magistrates court, and was heard at the Crown court in Blackpool, in which all the solicitors and witnesses came from Barrow. He informed me that fewer than half the cases which originate at the Barrow and Bootle or North Lonsdale magistrates' courts are now heard at the Barrow Crown court. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General explain why that is so?

I could quote many other cases, but time is limited. The consultation paper has caused considerable dismay in my constituency. Because of its geography, the Furness peninsula tends to be overlooked and isolated. Nevertheless, it has a long and proud record of independence, not least in the administration of justice. The catchment area for the Crown court at Barrow is large enough in size and population to warrant a Crown court being located in Barrow. There has been no change whatsoever in circumstances since Barrow was given Crown court status.

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The argument of administrative convenience-- the perpetual plea and excuse of all administrators--should always be secondary to the interests of those the administrators are paid to serve. The administration of justice should serve the local community and the general community, the accused and the society which it is alleged he has offended against. It will be a sad day for justice when administrative convenience is allowed to be paramount and to subsume the overriding interests of the community.

I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that Furness people are taxpayers like the rest of our citizens, and they are entitled to the same administration of justice as the rest of the country. 10.39 pm

The Attorney-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) for raising this matter on the motion for the Adjournment. As he rightly said a few moments ago, time is limited. The length of his excellent speech means that I have only six minutes in which to reply to the many issues that he has raised.

I appreciate the sensitivity of the issue in my hon. Friend's constituency and the strength of the feelings that he reports and shares. He said that the proposal emanates from a review of the Crown court at Barrow, instituted by the circuit administrator, following the Lord Chancellor's Department's internal scrutiny on the court management structure, the purpose of which is to secure better management. My hon. Friend did less than justice to the local knowledge of the circuit administrator who was responsible for the review.

Sittings of the Crown court in Barrow are held in a magistrates court. The courtroom is adequate. I note the chief constable's view that it cannot justifiably be described as dark or dingy, but it lacks many of the amenities that are normally regarded as minimal requirements today. Facilities for the judge, jurors, barristers and solicitors and witnesses are sparse.

Prisoners are brought from Risley remand centre in Warrington nearly 100 miles away, and have to stay in cells with inadequate provision for hygiene, catering and exercise. The conditions for the police, prison officers and staff have been the subject of frequent complaints, especially by the prison service. Meals have to be purchased from the police canteen, and there are only very basic facilities for eating. Indeed, no tables or chairs are available in the cells.

Although the cells have integral lavatories, there is only one wash-hand basin in the corridor. There are no facilities available for visits to the cell area by solicitors or barristers. Such visits therefore have to be conducted within the cells with no seating available. Visits by relatives of defendants have to be held at the grille gate leading to the cell area, again with no seating. There are only six cells. Inmates therefore have to share overnight if their number exceeds cell availability. The facilities for prison staff are no more acceptable, amounting to one room, measuring 10 ft. by 6 ft., which is sparsely furnished and in which prison staff spend up to 14 hours per day.

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A great deal of money would have to be spent to bring the cell accommodation up to reasonable standard. While that would improve conditions for the prisoners, the cell area would still be shared with the local police, which I understand does not accord with good practice. Remand prisoners, who are of course unconvicted and may never be found guilty, would continue to be subjected to inordinately lengthy journeys to and from court.

I now come to whether there is sufficient work to justify the continued presence of a Crown court. In 1988, a total of 121 cases for trial were committed to Barrow, with 35 appeals and cases for sentence. Of those committed for trial, about 70 per cent. pleaded guilty, leaving only 35 jury trials.

That is clearly insufficient to justify other than occasional sittings, particularly since some trials cannot be accommodated at Barrow because of their estimated length of hearing. The sitting arrangements at Barrow are limited to a maximum of three days at a time because the courtroom is required thereafter for sittings of the magistrates court. That provides an answer to one of my hon. Friend's questions. Accordingly, a case which may last for two or more days is usually transferred to Lancaster for trial. More than 30 per cent. of cases committed to Barrow are tried at Preston and Lancaster. That has been the case now for several years, as I understand the situation.

Let me return to the proposal that is advanced in the light of the features I have described. It is that, as an alternative to Crown court sittings at Barrow, the work should be dealt with by the Crown court at Lancaster. The journey from Risley would be reduced by half--to 50 miles. It is contended that conditions for prisoners and prison officers would be improved, and there would be significant benefits and savings in cost to the court and to the prison and probation services.

An increase in the work load and sittings at Lancaster would make better use of available accommodation, reduce the likelihood of wasted days, reduce waiting times, and make for more effective listing of cases. Here, I think, it is relevant that the scrutiny to which I have already referred noted the difficulties that generally are faced by small Crown court centres, which are generally satellites of a larger parent court.

The length of the average sitting day at Barrow is typical of those difficulties, in that it is particularly short. In 1988 the average was 3.98 hours. Even this figure is artificially high, as it is often the case that the court is only technically sitting while awaiting a jury's verdict, there not being work available to be dealt with in court during that time.

A prime function of the court service is to facilitate the just, speedy and economical disposal of cases. The short average sitting day that can be achieved at the court at Barrow, the small case load, and the interval between sessions makes for inefficiency and delay in spite of the best efforts of all concerned--and they are very good. A case not reached at one session must wait at least four weeks before it can be listed again at that venue, which, for some defendants, means waiting in custody.

I should like, of course, to deal at greater length with the points that my hon. Friend has made, but, alas, there is insufficient time by reason of the detailed and excellently presented speech he made. I would just say, however, that, uncharacteristically, he is not accurate in saying that the responses received so far by the Lord Chancellor's

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Department to these proposals have been all one way. Judicial opinion is by no means unanimous, and, of those who have responded to this proposal, the probation service, the prison service, the Crown prosecution service, and, I understand, the high sheriff also, have indicated some approval or support for the scheme--

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The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at fourteen minutes before Eleven o'clock.

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