Closing the doors on justice in the counties

Andrew Millington charts the growing number of magistrates courts closures. Andrew Millington is a freelance journalist.

Nearly a third of magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed in the past 10 years, according to a survey carried out by The Lawyer.

Since 1987 more than 160 out of nearly 550 courthouses have shut in non-metropolitan areas, frequently amid controversy and claims that the age-old principle of local justice is being jeopardised.

The closures, regarded as a surprisingly large number, have been blamed on ever-tightening Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) spending rules, linking funding with workload, which have accelerated the merger of petty sessional divisions. With 80 per cent of cash coming from the LCD and only 20 per cent from local authorities, it means that most Magistrates Courts Committees (MCCs) are vulnerable.

Many counties have grasped the nettle and closed smaller, rural courthouses. Others are determined to keep them open.

The worst-hit areas are: Hereford and Worcester with 12 closures; Dyfed with 10; Hampshire with nine; North Wales (the former Gwynedd and Clwyd MCCs) also nine; Northumberland, North Yorkshire and East Sussex, all with seven; while Somerset has had six closures. Counties where more are under threat include Gwent, Derbyshire and Dorset.

Very few counties have been untouched. Those with no closures since 1987 include Avon, Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire – largely because several have already been closed down.

But even Devon, which still has 18 courts and only one closure since 1987, has set up a working party for a review.

In some places new buildings have replaced several existing ones, such as Lyndhurst in Hampshire which replaced Lymington, Totton, Romsey, Ringwood and Hythe, and in Nottingham, where a new multi-million pound court replaced two older ones.

Winchester had one of the most controversial closures in 1993-94. There was anger when the MCC proposed abandoning the two courts in the purpose-built 1970s crown court building. But the MCC was stuck with a dilemma because it had to pay £180,000 annual rent to the county council at a time when the Winchester workload was deemed insufficient to warrant the outlay and funding was being reduced.

A campaign against its closure saw the police, Justices of the peace (JPs), lawyers, the city's MP, probation officers and the prison service united in an unsuccessful struggle. All court users now have to travel 20 miles to the courts in Basingstoke and Andover. JP Ann Odling says: “We have destroyed local justice. You cannot prove that statistically, it is only a feeling, but it is true.''

Critics point out that the savings for the Hampshire MCC were more than offset by the increased cost for all other users, although no figures are available. For example, Winchester police who have to attend court are now tied up for most of the day whereas before the closure they were only one minute from the city-centre beat.

“I know the police are still up in arms about it. They have problems getting officers to Andover and Basingstoke,” says Odling. She says an underlying assumption seems to be that widespread car ownership has lessened the need for courts in every town. But more than a quarter of the population has no access to a vehicle. Ironically last December the MCC issued a memo to JPs asking them to limit their travelling expenses.

Now Derbyshire MCC is facing the same tough choices. It plans to be one of the first to use the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to upgrade its courthouses. But it admits that several will have to close. This summer the MCC issued a consultation document over its proposal and tried to define “local justice”. It believes justice can still be local as long as it is “reasonably accessible”. But its definition is very broad and says that courts should be within 20 miles of major centres of population, accessible by public transport with a travel time limit of an hour, and within a 15-minute walk of public transport.

In the short term it looks likely that at least four courts- in Glossop, Bakewell, Matlock and Ashbourne – will be targeted at the end of the current review in August. Ultimately, the county may only retain three “super-courts”, in Derby, Chesterfield and the Buxton and Glossop area.

Alan Fowler, of the Derbyshire MCC, is expecting controversy due to the “historic parochialism” and reluctance to let any courts go. But he says: “I think our criteria are not unreasonable. Don't forget the vast majority of people using it will have been shown to have committed a criminal offence. We have to decide whether for a rare occurrence in an individual's life it is unreasonable to ask them to travel 20 miles.”

PFI, which has been jump-started in the National Health Service by Labour, will in the long term hold the key to whether other courts survive. If PFI succeeds in the legal service sector and capital becomes available for new buildings, more obsolete ones may close.

Hereford and Worcester is undergoing a pilot PFI project which other counties are watching closely. Leicestershire has bypassed PFI to take part in the Capital Challenge scheme to build a new courthouse at Hinkley which is due to open in three years' time.

Another county soon to face the closure of one of its courts is Dorset. Only one court has closed there in the past decade while 11 are currently in operation. Harry Barnes, Dorset's MCC chairman, said recently: “Each successive cut in funding erodes the ability of the MCC to make provision for the administration of local justice for local people – something that the magistrates in Dorset feel very passionate about.”

Local speculation is growing that a meeting in August may recommend the closure of several courts including Bridport, Sherborne, Dorchester and Weymouth. Magistrates staff are concerned about the gradual loss of courthouses based largely on financial criteria.

One senior magistrates courts official says the funding formula is short-sighted: “The service is already very cheap because magistrates are not paid and they deal with 96 per cent of all criminal cases,” he says. “It is good value for money which I think is being overlooked.”

However, Duncan Webster, general secretary of the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees, says: “The MCCs have rationalised the size of their estate and they have got to strike a balance. A lot of these rural courthouses are not cost-effective. MCCs have some unpalatable decisions to take because of the constraints on public expenditure.”

He adds: “Many courthouses are in listed buildings with primitive facilities unsuited to modern requirements. For the first time, MCCs have had to review their strategy on premises, decide which staff to make redundant and re-align their management structures.”

A spokesman for the LCD says: “Any decision to close is made by the local justices – it is entirely a local matter. The LCD only gets involved as a final arbiter.”