Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6 Dec 2005 : Column 233WH—continued

Community Courts

12.58 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): While health, education, the police and local councils now all work closely together in partnership to tackle our social problems locally, one institution stands aloof, not pulling its weight—the legal system. It often uses judicial independence and impartiality as an excuse to avoid the social responsibility that we must all share. That is an attitude as damaging and corrupting of social justice as was the canteen culture of the police—which, to their credit, they are changing. The legal system, too, must change.

That is felt at its keenest in constituencies such as mine and the Minister's, where despite the personal commitment and professional dedication of local professionals and practitioners, the culture of the legal system stands in the way of the comprehensive, multi-agency approach that we are all trying to build. Things need not be like that, and the Lord Chancellor needs to reposition the Department for Constitutional Affairs as a public service—customer-driven not producer-driven, freeing our talented local professionals to engage with our communities, not staff a system that looks down on them. That needs vision at ministerial and departmental level, and there are several strategies for achieving it. I want to talk about one of those strategies today.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Red Hook in Brooklyn. Having had the usual problems of overburdened magistrates, ineffective results and high recidivism rates, the deprived neighbourhood of Red Hook established the Red Hook community court in 2000. The court emphasises rehabilitation, prevention and community involvement rather than punishment alone. Defendants were brought in one after the other before Judge Calabrese, and they had a personal and direct relationship with him. What I saw illustrated the emphasis on mediation and the strong commitment to helping with the lives of those, often young, people rather than simply locking them up to reoffend later.

Community courts are about taking proactive steps to prevent antisocial behaviour and criminality. Community justice involves identifying, acknowledging and addressing the range of problems that contribute to entanglement in the criminal justice system, rather than simply focusing on the crime itself. A single judge hears multi-jurisdictional cases in one court and becomes an integral element of the community. He can hand down sentences of up to one year. He goes to community meetings; indeed, he initiates them—an experience that has not ended civilisation as the judiciary knows it, or called his integrity or impartiality into question. A judge whose tiny staff take polaroids of damp and squalid housing conditions in the community and bring the municipal landlord to court is seen to be delivering justice impartially in the community. In some people's eyes, that is the first time that that has ever happened.

The results are as follows. Some 75 per cent. of defendants complied with sanctions in Red Hook, compared with 50 per cent. at the traditional court in downtown Brooklyn, the re-arrest rate among drug offenders who had completed a community court-monitored treatment plan was 29 per cent. lower over three years, and the annual arrest rate of defendants
6 Dec 2005 : Column 234WH
who had completed at least 90 days of court-mandated drug treatment fell over three years from 2.3 annual arrests before the intervention to 0.9 annual arrests.

Justice is seen to have a real impact on the community. The average arrest-to-arraignment time was 18.9 hours, compared with 29.2 hours at the downtown Manhattan court. The arrangements deliver justice swiftly. With results such as those, the community court movement began to expand, and the empirical research on those jurisdictions reinforces the successful data coming out of Red Hook.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs conducted a study of the US community courts and released the results in May 2005. It found that the community courts had less backlog, the community was more satisfied and defendants were more compliant with sentences.

The movement to create community courts in the UK is building. Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, observed:

I agree wholeheartedly.

That ties in perfectly with neighbourhood policing and all our other local initiatives to put a human face on public services. The public respond whenever we do that, especially in the criminal justice system. In Nottingham tenants, residents, beat officers, neighbourhood wardens, probation officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and many others to whom I have spoken welcome the idea of a community court.

The very nature of community courts encourages an atmosphere in which a greater number of parties become involved in the process, and leads to wider justice for all. If a youth breaks someone's window, justice might involve getting the perpetrator to apologise to the owner and to work in community service projects to fix what they have broken. Rebuilding respect for the criminal justice system so that it is seen to deliver for people in local communities is radically different from the alienated process to which we have become accustomed in magistrates courts and other courts.

In community courts, those who violate the law see how their actions adversely affect other members of society. In addition, members of the community are more confident about giving evidence and helping to prevent problems from recurring. I am sure that witness intimidation is as big a problem in the constituencies of other hon. Members here as it is in mine, and it has to be tackled at the local level. Once we can administer justice at that level, community confidence will begin to be rebuilt. In community courts, those who are wronged also get a greater sense of justice because they are involved with the system, and feel better compensated by the unique process that the court offers.

Neighbourhoods' positive sentiments towards community courts are corroborated by the evidence collected, again, by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Department's research found that community residents' perceptions of safety had risen and, even more remarkably, that a majority of residents were willing to pay slightly increased taxes or to transfer
6 Dec 2005 : Column 235WH
money from other criminal justice agencies to fund the continuation of community courts. As a result of all that enthusiastic support for this innovative justice system, the United Kingdom's first community court opened its doors in January at the north Liverpool community justice centre. In the first six months after the court's introduction, north Liverpool experienced a decrease in crime, compared with the same time frame in the previous year.

Although Judge David Fletcher, who runs the community justice centre, is disparaged by some of the more conservative elements in the judiciary, he has emerged as an engaged community leader and personifies the success of the community court. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs has described him as having

That personal element of the community courts prevents defendants from becoming alienated from the process and allows for true rehabilitation so that they have the option of becoming productive members of society. My right hon. and learned Friend has also said that the centre in Liverpool is

If we are to generate capable charismatic judges who roll up their sleeves, step outside the comfort zone of a cosy judicial career ladder and are proactive in our communities, the Department needs to initiate fundamental cultural changes. It needs to start by revamping the monochrome judicial training and ensuring that judges have a lifetime engagement with the communities that they are meant to serve.

Over 18 years I have put a great deal of effort into trying to meet the judiciary in my own city, and I have managed to meet judges and others on only a handful of occasions. However, within five minutes of entering the judge's jurisdiction in Brooklyn, on my way to Red Hook, I was sitting at the top table watching him administer justice. He showed photographs to a defendant who was going through a drug rehabilitation scheme, but who was wobbling and perhaps thinking of leaving the scheme to go back on to the drugs. The judge showed the defendant pictures of himself taken 40 days earlier and asked, "Is that the sort of thing you want to return to? Do you really want to go back to looking like that?" That sort of direct follow-through communication with defendants should be looked at and replicated in the UK. Ensuring that our judges are more in tune with their communities does not for one second mean that they are less impartial or less independent; it simply means that they are more capable of delivering the justice that we need.

Community courts are gaining momentum in the United Kingdom, and many more communities, including those in Nottingham, are ready to embrace this innovative system of justice at a lower level. Although I would prefer there to be a single judge, if that option were available, we can look at other levels, too. The Salford community justice initiative recently
6 Dec 2005 : Column 236WH
opened, and community justice panels in Chard and Ilminster are now operational and continuing the trend of success that the community courts have repeatedly shown since their creation.

We are serious about getting the legal system to be a part of Nottingham. This morning the idea of community courts will be discussed at our local criminal justice board. We have seen the adverse effects of antisocial behaviour and criminality and the need for an integrated way of tackling those growing problems. On Monday on one of my local estates we will launch Operation Kingdom: a multi-agency approach, with the addition of dozen extra police officers, will go in to fill a vacuum created by the very positive arrests of some of the key villains in the east midlands. We are going in there with housing, social security, CCTV operatives and additional police personnel to ensure that that community can be helped to rebuild itself now that those significant arrests have taken place.

That community, and Operation Kingdom, would be a classic case for assistance at judicial and legal level, but at the moment those connections are not there. What would the people on the Bestwood estate give to have an active involved judge repairing the damage done by a decade of criminality by one key family? We need such people in our communities. We need the Minister to make every intellectual effect to see how she can spread those pilots further.

A community court in Bestwood, or in St. Ann's or the Meadows in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) could be the spark that really makes our communities' fight-back unstoppable. We have had some adverse publicity in the city of Nottingham, some of it self-generated, but that would be a demonstration that Nottingham itself had thought this through, got everybody around the table and found another way to fight back and regenerate our communities.

In October, just to show that we are serious about this idea in our city, we had the privilege of playing host to district attorneys from Red Hook, who came to examine our magistrates and exchange notes on the best ways to deal with crime. They met our chief Crown prosecutor Kate Carty, and helped us to understand the steps that we need to take to make community courts a working reality for Nottingham. I invited those two female DAs from New York to the House of Commons and we had a chat here about the exciting possibilities, and how they had changed the community in Red Hook. The Crown prosecutor and I also took our case for community courts to Baroness Scotland, who is the relevant Home Office Minister. She, too, gave us encouragement and listened carefully to our ideas about the possible way forward for community courts in Nottingham.

I do not know whether I should have declared an interest at the beginning and I apologise if I have transgressed in any way, but I am the chairman of our local regeneration partnership in Nottingham, One Nottingham, which is the local strategic partnership charged with the regeneration of our city. Our priorities, too, tie in closely with ensuring that the legal system and the criminal justice system are a part of the revival and are not aloof and watching from afar. While maintaining their judicial integrity and independence, they should be in there with us helping us, as any other
6 Dec 2005 : Column 237WH
public institution would, to revive and revitalise some of the deprived areas in my constituency. The community court is a perfect fit in that regeneration strategy and it helps the legal system to play its part as a full and active partner in regenerating our communities.

One Nottingham stands ready to hold the ring for any proposals coming forward for our city. We would be available to discuss with Ministers or officials how that might best be done. To show the seriousness with which we are preparing for that possibility, a conference will be held in March in the city of Nottingham under the umbrella of the Magistrates Association and a local trust in order to take those ideas forward. I do not know whether it is right for me to invite my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister to address that conference, but I shall ask her diary secretary whether she is available. As always, she will be very welcome. We were sad that she was unable to attend a day that we had planned for her in Nottingham; it would have included a discussion about the concept of community courts. I blame my former colleagues in the Whips Office for that misadventure, but I hope to make up for it on another occasion.

It is understandable that the Government want to see the completed results of some of the UK pilot programmes. However, if she does not know already, the Minister needs to be told that we stand ready to move whenever we are given the signal. Empirical data and community feedback show that community courts are having some success. The sooner we in Nottingham can begin to take those strides forward, curbing antisocial behaviour and criminality in our communities, the better.

Some may say, "We can't afford a community court; we'll have to pay for a judge, and the housing and accommodation." But our communities, which already pay billions of pounds as a result of petty criminality—the costs of the police service, the Prison Service, drug rehab, the broken families, the poor, and low educational attainment—would not agree that we cannot afford those courts. They would probably say that we cannot afford not to have them. Indeed, the quality of life of those in my constituency who live in the large former council estates in the outer city is diminished daily. They live in fear of the crime caused by the local yobs and the dealers. They, too, would probably say that we cannot afford not to have those courts.

I look forward to the day when my constituency can witness an innovative court with a spirited and positive judge like the one whom I saw in Red Hook, and probably like the one in north Liverpool. We have the support of our local community and our regeneration body, and we are supported also by the Government's vast research on the matter.

Nottingham is more than ready to become a pioneer in the revolutionary field of community justice. We ask only that the Government give us the opportunity, as soon as possible, to establish a community court in Nottingham. We, too, can then begin to have a positive impact on regeneration. We do not want justice to be an alien concept unrelated to everyday life; we want justice to be delivered locally, and to be seen to be delivered locally. We hope that that will help rebuild confidence not only in our judicial system but in our social system.
6 Dec 2005 : Column 238WH
We believe that the courts and the law have a central role to play in the regeneration of our communities, and community courts are a key way of demonstrating that.

1.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on choosing to debate community courts. I admire the way in which he argued his cause. He made a strong case—and what we heard about in his short speech is just the tip of the iceberg. I know from discussions that I and my ministerial colleagues and officials have had with him that his work on this subject is based where it should be: he listens to what people are saying in his local community. The policy development is not being undertaken in an ivory tower, but is based on what his constituents are saying to him. It is therefore hugely important.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend's patient and measured approach. I appreciate that it must be hard for him—seeing the needs of his constituents and the downright urgency of the agenda that he is putting forward—when it sometimes takes a while to get ancient institutions to step forward and work together in different ways. I congratulate him on his patient persistence in taking this matter forward.

My hon. Friend made a point about the culture of the legal system, on which I can only agree. It is hard to believe that if we asked members of the communities whom we represent to design a system for resolving disputes and identifying criminal responsibility, they would conjure up the current system. I think that we all believe that many changes are needed—although many are already under way. The fact that something has been as it is for many hundreds of years is not a reason not to consider what it could do better.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to look at the courts and the legal system as a public service; the Secretary of State, Lord Falconer, strongly agrees with that point. That service is there to prevent crimes from being committed by acting as a deterrent, and to bring offenders to justice and punish them when crimes are committed. It is also there to resolve disputes within families that cannot be resolved outside court, and to resolve civil cases. Therefore it is a public service, and it needs to look outward more. That is the culture that Lord Falconer is leading forward from his position as Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend made several points about Red Hook. His point about multi-jurisdictionality—if that is not too long a word—was well made. Why do we have such a clear sense of the different silos of the civil and criminal jurisdictions? Many of the issues about which he spoke stray across those jurisdictions. He talked about people going out and taking photographs of damp conditions. There might be damp conditions in a block of flats. There might also be criminality there, problems with children not attending school as much as they should, and family problems. I agree with his suggestion, and thank him for making it, that we need to consider what the problems are and make the courts work to solve them, rather than making individuals or agencies go from pillar to post.

In the domestic violence court in Croydon, there are sometimes families who have family problems involving contact with children and decisions about property, as
6 Dec 2005 : Column 239WH
well as domestic violence issues. Why make one family go in front of two judges? Why not have all the facts go before one judge? That will happen in Croydon: one family, one judge. That idea needs to take root throughout the legal system—basing work around the problem, rather than making people go from pillar to post.

Mr. Allen : The multi-jurisdictional aspect is not merely internal to the law. In places such as Red Hook one can get drug rehab, child care and health care in the court building, and there is a children's court there, too. All sorts of facilities are satellites around the court, because it has become such an engine for the community.

In the UK we have the LIFT—local improvement finance trust—project in the health service, which means that a new building may contain not only a health centre, but a gymnasium and a local police station. I do not want to give my right hon. and learned Friend ideas—but on second thoughts, perhaps I do. Perhaps the Department for Constitutional Affairs should have a budget for an equivalent to the LIFT project, and consider doing similar experiments in the UK.

Ms Harman : That is an interesting point, which I will consider. My hon. Friend makes the point that in that community justice centre—it is not really a court building; it is more than that—there is drug rehabilitation provision and the like. I hope that as well as spending all the time that he does in his constituency and visiting Red Hook, he will visit north Liverpool community justice centre. I have not been to Red Hook, but I have been to north Liverpool, and his description of the judge at Red Hook reminded me of Judge David, as the community groups call him, of the north Liverpool community justice centre—out and about in jeans and a T-shirt with the community groups at the time of night when the community is particularly beset with problems because of kerb crawling and prostitution. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Judge David Fletcher for taking on his shoulders the responsibility for everyone's hopes and fears for community justice, and for his commitment to that.

When I was in Liverpool and met the community groups, I was struck by the fact that they have a sense of owning the judge, and why should they not? He is supposed to be providing justice in their community, and he does not fight shy of that; he knows that his working relationship with them helps him to understand what he has in front of him, and the right way to solve the problems. That is why, upstairs from the courthouse, there are drug and housing projects. On the same site there is a youth activities centre. That model is being developed there, and many of the community's hopes, and our hopes, rest on it. As I said, I hope that my hon. Friend will visit the centre.
6 Dec 2005 : Column 240WH

My hon. Friend asked whether the initiative would be too expensive. Much of this initiative is about people seeing their work differently. Obviously, the more money that can be spent on it the better, but there is a possibility of change just because people see that they can do things differently. The domestic violence forum in Southend said that the judge from the family court was prepared to attend a meeting of the forum to hear about the effects of domestic violence, and that its members felt much more confidence as a result. I am sure that as a result, many more people were prepared to report domestic violence, because they felt that that person understood what was going on. My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a question of public confidence. He is also right to say that we need an opportunity for the wisdom of the community, which best knows the effects of the problems and how they can be solved, to be fed into the process. That means the judge and the community meeting, knowing each other and working together regularly.

My hon. Friend said that this initiative could unleash the spark that made the community fight back. We all know the reality of communities who just feel beaten. The community must be engaged to solve problems, but people will engage only if they feel that there are some prospects and some hope. My hon. Friend is right about that. He has asked for a community court in Nottingham, and he made a very powerful case. He also said that a conference was being prepared. Can it be on a Monday? It is much easier to escape the Whips on a Monday morning, and then I would be delighted to go. Community courts work well if the agencies are engaged—my hon. Friend has worked incredibly hard to make the agencies work together in Nottingham—and if the community is optimistic and prepared to engage. Again, he has led that process with his colleagues in the city.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's powerful case will elicit a positive response. I am also sure that in the meantime, what he is already doing is effecting change. He wants more and faster change for his constituents, and we in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with our colleagues in the Home Office, want to work with him to help to deliver that, but make no mistake: he is already effecting change through those arguments.

We must consider what people want from the justice system and measure it not against what it used to do and what it does, but against what people want. Timeliness is an issue. People do not expect an ordinary assault to take eight months to come to court; they think that it is probably more reasonable if such a case comes to court within four weeks. That is the measure of the gap with which we have to deal. My hon. Friend is a champion of trying to remould the justice system into something that people want—and after all, they should have what they want. The justice system exists in their interests and they are paying for it; it is a necessary public service. We look forward to working with my hon. Friend in partnership on the public service reform agenda for the justice system.
6 Dec 2005 : Column 239WH

6 Dec 2005 : Column 241WH

Next Section IndexHome Page