Law: Outlawing local justice

The closure of old magistrates' courts is not just a finale for some magnificent buildings. It is the end to local links between JPs and people appearing before them. By John-Paul Flintoff
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The Independent Culture
DAVID UFFINDALL, a lay magistrate in North Yorkshire, often bumps into people he has sent to prison. But he could not be more delighted. "I saw one in the supermarket," he recalls. "I said hello, and he said `By 'eck, I wish you'd given me a couple of days less!' "

Like many of his colleagues on the bench, Uffindall believes that magistrates' courts work well precisely because magistrates are familiar with the local community. "Justice is about local people dealing with local people, magistrates who know the area. To live with your decisions from day to day is extremely important," he says. The tradition of local justice reaches back to the Middle Ages. "It's hard to explain this, but it's about the collective esteem of the local community, about the sense that we can run our own affairs."

But that tradition is under threat, because magistrates' courts - including Ripon's, in which Uffindall used to sit - are being closed down one after the other. This is partly because magistrates' workload is diminishing. Many of the offences that once required an appearance in court can now be settled by post - driving offences, for example, and fare evasion. For other offences, police have become increasingly reliant on the use of a caution.

And if the work isn't there, then keeping the magistrates' court open can't be justified, because local magistrates' courts committees (MCCs) are allocated a fixed sum each year by the Lord Chancellor's Department, and one of the biggest sources of expenditure is leasing court buildings from local authorities. "These buildings were built a long time ago and were not geared up to modern requirements. It can be expensive to put buildings into an acceptable state," says Paul Bradley, chief executive of the north Yorkshire MCC. A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's department elaborates: "The Government is committed to the better distribution and use of the public resources that are allocated to magistrates' courts committees. We look to provide a modern system of justice, with well equipped and secure courtrooms."

On the face of it, Ripon magistrates' court didn't look great value for money. Built in 1850, its single cell was "more or less the cleaner's cupboard", says Uffindall. Outsiders, brought in to examine the court by the MCC, suggested that to bring the court up to modern standards would cost a prohibitive pounds 250,000. Whereas closing it down, the MCC calculated, would save pounds 10,000 a year.

It did not close without a fight. Last October, when they heard about the plan, many local magistrates themselves set about protesting. They collected 4,000 signatures, says Uffindall. They took the campaign to local papers and broadcasters. The local MP, former Conservative minister David Curry, raised the matter in Parliament. The local authority, which pays 20 per cent of the cost of magistrates' courts, appealed against the decision, but in June the Lord Chancellor - who pays the other 80 per cent - backed the closure. Now defendants and witnesses must travel 12 miles to the modern court facilities of Harrogate. In effect, they are subsidising, through their transport costs, the savings achieved by the MCC. And in north Yorkshire, transport is not a simple matter. For people living in the most remote corners of the region, poor public transport can make it almost impossible to get to Harrogate and back within a single day. One local villain recently told Uffindall that he would henceforth wait to be collected for court appearances by a police "taxi".

Over the last seven years, explains Bradley, 10 out of 19 local magistrates' courts in North Yorkshire have been closed down. "In most cases," he says, "the county council did appeal, as did the city of York, but all the appeals were dismissed by the Lord Chancellor."

But Uffindall is deeply unimpressed. "This is a quango taking away a public service when they are not answerable to the public."

Closures are happening all over the country. In inner London, Old Street, Southcombe Street, Walton Street and, most recently, Marlborough Street and Hampstead magistrates' courts have ceased operating. Still facing uncertainty is the court in King's Cross Road, Clerkenwell. "Wonderful courts - all closing down," comments one sorrowful solicitor, Paul Butcher of Hodge Jones & Allen, in Camden. "What about the local community?"

But Hampstead magistrates' court contained only one courtroom, and little space. It might have been listed, as an historic building, but it was nothing more than "a toilet", according to one barrister who appeared there before it closed.

"Or perhaps a large cupboard," she concedes. Her scathing comments have little to do with the wood panelling. What she is getting at are the cramped conditions, in which it was occasionally necessary to write down instructions on her lap. For this particular barrister, the closure of Hampstead can only be regarded as a good thing.

In place of the smaller courthouses are springing up a smaller number of buildings, each one housing a greater number of courtrooms, larger space and greater facilities. The most recent to open in inner London was the seven-courtroom West London magistrates' court in Hammersmith. In almost every respect, the new buildings represent an improvement - except for hard-up defendants and witnesses who have to fork out for bus or Tube fares for the privilege of appearing in court.

But one defence barrister considers that this is no great hardship - for a few of the defendants, at least. "I've got some clients," she says, "who travel as far as from London to Cardiff to carry out their crimes. I think they can manage a trip across town to court."

And in any case, the inconvenience of making an appearance in a court far from home is always going to be a problem. If the alleged crime took place in Brighton, then that is where the case must be held, even if the defendant is from Liverpool.

"And why not?" asks a spokesman for one MCC. "After all, if you moved the case to Liverpool, then all the witnesses would have to travel there. And that wouldn't be fair either."