Law: Court's closing argument

Local justice for local people, says the Government. So why must Keighley in West Yorkshire lose its magistrates' court, the residents ask.
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THE RESIDENTS of Keighley in West Yorkshire have got a problem. They want their local courthouse to stay open. Their argument - and that of the local council - is that plans to close the magistrates' court in the northern part of the region will leave people in that area without a local court. The Magistrates' Courts Committee - which has a statutory responsibility for administering the courts in the region - refuses to change its plans. The local council has accused the MCC of basing its decision to close the courthouse on money alone, and not on the practical needs of the community. It has appealed to the Lord Chancellor to reverse the decision.

The residents of Keighley are not alone. Patsy Evans, a magistrate on the Vale Royal bench in Cheshire for seven years and a council member of the Magistrates Association, is in dispute with her local MCC, which is proposing to close up to half of the eight remaining courthouses (there were 17 in 1974).

The Government says it is committed to ensuring local justice for local people. Unfortunately, it has not matched that commitment with an increase in resources for the 430-odd magistrates' courts in England and Wales over the last couple of years. Funding has remained roughly the same since 1995 at about pounds 260 million.

The Local Government Association - an umbrella group of 410 local authorities in England and Wales - says that the cuts in funding from central government have resulted in court closures. Not surprisingly, the LGA has started a campaign to fight the closures - there were about 21 in the year to 31 March 1999 - and the resultant regionalisation of magistrates' courts.

Cllr Gordon Keymer, chairman of the LGA's Rural Commission, accuses the Lord Chancellor of taking a narrow view of his responsibilities to provide equal access to justice for everyone. He argues: "Centralisation of court provision into regional centres is not only harming rural communities, it is also a false economy. Additional travel and time costs are created for the public and public officials like the police and probation officers."

But according to the LCD, it has no responsibility for court closures. It says this falls to the Magistrates' Courts Committees, after local consultation with the paying authority. A spokesman said that the Lord Chancellor only becomes involved in the event of an appeal.

Crispin Moor, Rural Officer for the LGA, agrees that MCCs (which are made up of about 12 local magistrates) are ostensibly responsible for court closures. But says "they are caught between a rock and a hard place because they have to operate within the resource constraints set by the Lord Chancellor's Department". Every committee is dependent for 80 per cent of its funding from the Government, with the rest from the local authority.

The LCD says it is for the MCC to decide how to spend its funding. The Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees - which represents the 84 MCCs in England and Wales - recommends that committees ensure "that the gains overall outweigh the inevitable losses to the community near to the closed court". It also recommends that the MCC takes into account "distances and public transport considerations in relation to ease of access to the courthouse, or any alternative courthouse, to the public". These are only guidelines and MCCs are not required to comply with them when considering a court closure.

The LCD justifies closures on the basis that although magistrates should ideally live or work locally, this does not mean that each community will have its own courthouse. Mrs Evans believes the LCD is not concerned with the need to provide a local service for local people. "We are supposed to represent local people and have local knowledge. But then we are told that everything is cash-limited and needs to be rationalised. It just doesn't add up."