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Rural Magistrates Courts

11.57 am

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue today and I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for being here to reply.

There is no doubt that courthouse closures have exercised many hon. Members over a number of years. Closures have occurred up and down the country. The evidence is not only anecdotal but factual. I consulted the Library to establish how many courthouses had closed in the past 10 years. The number of courthouses has diminished by 28 per cent. in that time, and now each serving courthouse looks after, on average, half as many people again.

There has therefore been a significant change. For rural communities, closure of rural courthouses, has a special resonance because their impact on local communities is particularly acute. In 1998, five courthouses were closed in Suffolk. In the Suffolk magistrates courts committee annual report of 1997-98, the chairman of the committee described the situation as follows:

Less than 18 months on, two smaller courthouses that are left, at Sudbury and Mildenhall, appear to be under threat. I salute the campaign undertaken by the East Anglian Daily Times to preserve them. In a letter to the editor of the paper, Mr. Terry Hunt, the chairman of Suffolk magistrates' courts committee, Mrs. Anne Dunford, wrote:

    "May I put the record straight with regard to Sudbury and Mildenhall magistrates courts? Suffolk Magistrates' Courts Committee has no plans at the present time to close either courthouse." Later, it stated:

    "If the new arrangements were possible at Bury St. Edmunds, we would expect to review the situation, but I can assure your readers that courthouse closures are not presently under discussion." What the lady meant by that is that they intend ultimately to construct a purpose-built courthouse in

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    Bury St. Edmunds, which would bring the total number of courthouses in the county to three. Mrs. Dunford did not flatly reject the idea that those two smaller courthouses should close. She declined the opportunity to close them. Knowing what happened two years ago because of a lack of consultation, I fear what might be in the pipeline.

Our reason for raising this important matter is not merely to talk about Suffolk alone because the situation is replicated across the country. The point at issue is the relationship between magistrates courts committees and central Government, and whether the Government have issued guidance to the committees on the closure of courts. It has been brought to my attention and to that of my hon. Friends, the Law Society and others, as the House of Commons Library can confirm. The answer is that none has been given. Even county councils, which in Suffolk have provided 20 per cent. of the courts committees' budget, are unable to bring effective pressure to bear.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Will my hon. Friend press on with his campaign, not only for East Anglia but for the whole country? Devon has 17 magistrates courts, but it is estimated that 10 will be closed. Some are a great distance apart. If, say, the Lord Chancellor decided to close a court in Ealing, and told people that they had to go to Reading for magistrates proceedings, they would think that the Lord Chancellor was mad. Closing the court in Axminster and making people go to Exeter is just as bad: it is madness. My hon. Friend must press on with the campaign, which I am sure many hon. Members will support in order to deal with this national rather local problem.

Mr. Spring: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's comment. The situation developing in Devon is replicated in many other parts of the country.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I should like to add to the comments of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Peter Emery). Not only Devon will be affected, although that is important enough, but Devon and Cornwall. The magistrates courts committee of Devon and Cornwall is considering proposals to close 13 courts in both counties. Does the right hon. Member for East Devon agree that justice should be done, and be seen to be done locally? Those courts are a vital part of our rural infrastructure and should not be undermined. Furthermore, for the reasons that the right hon. Member for East Devon gave, the savings will be marginal at best, and by closing most of the courts the magistrates courts committee will probably add to the cost of justice.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody): Order. This is a short debate, and interventions must be brief.

Mr. Spring: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who made his point powerfully, has my absolute assurance that the bit is between my teeth. I hope that the Minister will feel the sincere passion that those of us who represent rural constituencies feel about this most important subject and the threat to our way of life in our local communities.

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That is the heart of the matter. I know of no comparable circumstances in which money is supplied from the public purse and the relationship is not arm's length but no length at all. It is an infinitesimal sort of relationship, involving neither guidance nor control. As the Minister will know, a funding formula is used for the NHS, education and the police, which takes into account elements such as rurality, sparsity and capitation in dividing up the public purse. Such elements do not seem to be considered by magistrates courts committees. Two years ago, the entire community of Suffolk, including magistrates and those affected by the court closures, objected to what happened. No budgetary reason was given, and the magistrates courts committee went ahead and closed the courts. Throughout the country, magistrates courts committees seem to have a dose of incurable and rampant "centralisationitis". They seem to want to immortalise themselves by erecting edifices that no one in the rural communities, other than themselves, wants.

I return to the circumstances that prompted me to request a debate this morning--the threat to the two courts at Mildenhall and Sudbury. Mildenhall, in my constituency, has a population of 13,500, but serves the entire area covered by Forest Heath district council--approximately 55,000 people. It has been suggested that it is only a 20-minute drive to Bury St. Edmunds. However, the Mildenhall court serves not only the people of Mildenhall and the immediately surrounding hamlets and villages, but the nearby town of Newmarket, which is substantially larger, the villages and hamlets of the fens nearby, Lakenheath, with a population of more than 5,000, and Brandon, with a population of more than 8,000.

Those communities are not especially affluent: 23 per cent. of households in the area covered by Forest Heath district council do not have access to a motor car. If Mildenhall court is closed, what will happen to my constituents who must go to Bury St. Edmunds from Brandon? In Brandon, 26 per cent. of households do not have access to a car. I have examined the bus timetables for all those areas, going to Bury St. Edmunds. The court starts at 10 o'clock. Someone who lives in Brandon and must reach Bury St. Edmunds for the start of a court session would have to catch a bus at 7.52 am. The journey would last for more than an hour, and the bus would arrive in Bury St. Edmunds at 8.56 am--

Sir Peter Emery: They are lucky to have a bus.

Mr. Spring: That is the point. The number of bus services in rural areas is limited, and it is something else for people to make judgments about the future of those courthouses based on the assumption that people automatically have access to a motor car.

I have spoken to many local journalists who cover proceedings in the courthouses, and have asked them what effect previous closures have had on delays and difficulties in reaching courthouses for my constituents in places such as Newmarket and Haverhill, where the courthouses were closed. They have told me that those closures have resulted in delays and difficulties for defendants, witnessess, solicitors and everyone else

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involved. What will be the end result if smaller courthouses are closed? There will be more traffic and higher car usage as friends, family and solicitors work together to provide transport. Clearly, as the Liberal Democrat Lord Phillips of Sudbury pointed out, the environmental impact will be negative. Lord Phillips has spoken about the importance of local justice as enshrined in magna carta. On 14 January, he stated in the East Anglian Daily Times that

    "We are now abolishing it 800 years later without any thought to the impact on local communities, who are seeing the erosion of much-loved, long-standing institutions." Local magistrates understand their communities and know the families who are involved in community life. Often, magistrates are small business people who were born and bred in their communities. They can spot troublemakers, and are familiar with families and communities with special problems. That is the essence of the local criminal justice system. All that knowledge, wisdom and experience are being thrown out willy-nilly up and down the country as courthouses are closed down. That is lamentable.

In a politically ecumenical spirit, I shall refer to a letter published in the East Anglian Daily Times from a former magistrate, Councillor Sue Thomas, who is a member of the South Suffolk Labour party. She points out that there are only five courthouses in Suffolk, and if two more were abolished, Suffolk would have fewer courthouses than any other county. In respect of counties with populations of between 600,000 and 700,000, Suffolk already has the fewest courthouses. For example, Lincolnshire has 12 courthouses and Devon--which, as we have heard, is also under threat--has 14. The criminal justice system is being sliced like a salami. That is deeply damaging, and offensive to people of all political persuasions.

As a result, travel time and environmental damage will increase, and the existing problem of recruiting magistrates will be exacerbated. The difficulties experienced by defendants and witnesses will increase enormously. As Jonathan Ripman of the Law Society for Suffolk and North East Essex has said in respect of Suffolk, "Here we go again!" As I pointed out to the Minister, the county council is speaking out, but, as before, to no avail. Councillors are worried that, no matter what they do, their influence will be minimal. Susan Sida-Lockett, the Conservative group leader of Suffolk county council, has turned to her local government association for guidance. She has asked for a more clearly defined national policy and a set of criteria to prevent the consequences that we are discussing from arising.

I am sorry to say that, during the past few years, the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who had to deal with closures in Suffolk, approved without exception closures up and down the country. I invest no particular blame in him, because the closures have been going on for some time; however, the problem is now becoming much worse. Therefore, we must consider new guidelines and a framework--for instance, an ideal ratio of courts to population, taking into account elements such as sparsity, transport, environmental effects and cost to the public purse. Of course the courts are not run for the convenience of court officials: they are run for the convenience of our local communities, who feel devastated by the loss.

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I want to quote from the Magistrates Association itself. I have had a strong letter from John James of Dorset, who is its deputy chairman. He says:

Therefore, on many levels, rural England is under considerable pressure. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to observe what is going on in our communities and to make sure that, as we have the privilege of sitting here as Members of Parliament, we pass on to the generation ahead a viable, successful and workable criminal justice system in touch with the communities that we represent. I fear that if what is happening in magistrates courts continues, we as parliamentarians will rue the day that we allowed it to happen.

In conclusion, I appeal to the Minister. The present situation is serious and alarming and continues to deteriorate. We must seriously consider creating a proper framework to carry out the responsibility of MCCs, particularly in rural areas. There must be more accountability than there is at present and some responsibility to the future of local communities that are increasingly under threat as their institutions are closed down. The criminal justice system, going back to the magna carta, is part and parcel of the viability of those communities. I appeal to the Minister to find ways of reversing the present trend and restoring the magistrates' courts system to its proper place.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy ): On the first occasion that I spoke in a Standing Committee under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, you suggested--in a way in which only you can, sotto voce--that I speak up. I am struggling this morning, and I hope that the parliamentary broadcasting unit will be able to pick up my failing voice as I respond to this important debate. I am delighted to see you in the Chair, because I know that you take an interest in these issues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing a debate on the important issue of the development of magistrates court services in rural

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districts. He made a most eloquent and interesting speech expressing the fears, genuinely felt in his constituency, that more changes to magistrates courts are in the pipeline there.

As the hon. Gentleman knows from earlier debates on the issue, magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, which comprise local magistrates selected by a selection panel also made up of local magistrates. They conduct their business under the provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, some of which have now been overtaken by the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. The Suffolk magistrates courts committee is responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the courts in its area. That committee, in consultation with the relevant paying authority--in this case, Suffolk county council--determines how many courthouses, and other accommodation, urban or rural, are needed locally.

It is sensible and rational that these reviews are taking place, and we expect no less of the magistrates courts committees in fulfilling their responsibilities. They must decide the most efficient way in which to discharge their statutory duty. However, it is not true to say that no guidance is issued to those committees. The central council of magistrates courts committees issues good practice guidance on courthouse closures. The Government encourage magistrates courts committees to follow that guidance. As the hon. Gentleman said, the magistrates courts committee has no plans to close further courthouses in Suffolk, so he can be reassured on that point.

Since the hon. Gentleman secured a debate on this subject in 1998, five courthouses have been allowed to close, as he has described. At that time, he warned the House that that would be the end of judicial life as we knew it in Suffolk. That has not happened. The performance in the Suffolk magistrates courts committee's area has improved. The average time for first listing to completion of a case has improved from 33 days in June 1998 to 32 days in June 1999. The published figures for monitoring the prosecution of persistent young offenders covering the first six months of 1999 show that the average time from the arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders in Suffolk was 130 days. That compares favourably with 154 days for Suffolk in 1997.

Furthermore, there have not been the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman predicted in recruiting suitable magistrates after the courthouse closures in 1998. There have been no adverse comments from court users resulting from the closures. Cases have not had to be relisted as a result of prosecution or defence witnesses failing to turn up at the new venues. This further points to the fact that the magistrates courts committee behaved responsibly in determining its courtroom needs.

I will say a few words about local justice. The essential feature of local justice is that magistrates live or work in the locality. It is not simply a question of the location of the delivery of justice. It is not an essential feature of local justice that each community will have its own courthouse. Magistrates courts committees need to balance the need for a locally delivered service with the need to improve the quality of that service within the resources that are available to them. They are also,

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mindful of the Government's aim of reducing delay, providing the optimum number of courtrooms in their area, permitting the flexible listing of cases.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I declare an interest as a life member of the Magistrates Association. Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that it is difficult to provide that level of service, given that magistrates courts committees are so unevenly funded? That puts pressure on the committees, including my own in Leicestershire.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend makes a point about the funding formula. That is currently being reviewed; a new formula is being prepared in consultation with the magistrates courts committees. We expect that that will deal with some of the problems that are being experienced in some localities.

It is important to reduce delays and focus on the needs of court users. The pressure to reduce delays in court comes from victims, witnesses and defendants--that is, the most important court users. Court users are primarily concerned about their case being heard on the day that it is listed.

I understand the attachment that many people have to the court system as it has grown up over the centuries. However, we must consider how the service can be modernised in line with the way in which people live now and the power and potential of information technology and modern communications. Nowadays, much of the business of the criminal courts does not have to be conducted face to face. For example, there is no technical--as opposed to legal--reason why fines have to be paid locally in person. They could be paid by post, by telephone or, eventually, electronically. Preliminary and administrative hearings could be conducted using video and audio conferencing methods, which are currently being developed.

Even the trial, the core of criminal proceedings, is changing. Children and other vulnerable witnesses can give evidence by video link, and information technology is transforming the way in which evidence can be presented to courts. Lord Justice Auld's review, which

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has recently been announced, will address many of those questions and offer ideas as to how we might change the criminal court system to make it fit for the 21st century.

Information technology can also improve the efficiency of the courts and the justice system. For example, we are aiming to reduce the incidence of adjournments, and the time wasted by court users, that is caused by the lack of information available to the court. The strategic IT plans of the major criminal justice agencies include the electronic transfer of information between agencies--for example, the provision of case information from the police to the court in time for the hearing, or the fast and efficient communication of results from the court to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. That will provide more timely and complete information for the courts. We intend to introduce a new system for the magistrates court that will include such inter-agency links. The hon. Member for West Suffolk will be pleased to learn that when implementation of the system begins in the summer of next year, Suffolk will be the first magistrates courts committee to take the new system.

Let us not forget that magistrates are an essential and valuable part of the service. If they are to gain much more full and varied experience, and fulfil their sitting hours, it is better for work to be concentrated in larger, more efficient courts.

As I said, court users want to be sure that their case will be heard on the date it is listed, without too much waiting on the day. Larger courts with good facilities are more likely to be able to provide that level of service, because there is much more flexibility in using the courtroom accommodation. Transferring the workload of magistrates courts committees to better equipped centres is one way to modernise and improve the overall service that they provide. Their local knowledge means that they are best placed to make judgments on the best use of their resources.

I can only repeat that the Government are committed to providing a modern system of justice with well-equipped and secure courtrooms. We are committed to reducing delay in the time taken for cases to proceed through the courts and so to achieve our aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. We must all look to the future and the different ways of working that the new century will bring.

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