People's courts put bigwigs in the dock

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The Independent Online

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

9 January 2000

"PEople's Courts" to "try" council leaders, education chiefs and senior police officers are to be created in every major regional centre. The courts will be open to local people who believe they have been let down by public officials.

Currently, anyone who wants to take a council or any other statutory body to court must go to London. Costly and time-consuming, it can easily put people off bringing actions.

Even if a case goes ahead, public officials usually escape public scrutiny because local newspapers are reluctant to send reporters to London.

Cases are invariably heard in one of the 90 courts housed in the labyrinthine corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. But the new regional courts will allow local people to challenge decisions made by council leaders, chief constables and education authorities in their own back yards.

They will have the right to challenge a vast range of decisions including school closures. And they could bring an action against a chief constable who decided to reduce the number of officers operating in any given neighbourhood.

The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jeffery Bowman, a former senior partner with accountancy firm PriceWaterhouse- Coopers, on the instruction of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine.

Under the new proposals, leading London barristers, many of whom earn £1m a year, will have to travel from London to court centres in the regions.

"The very best silks in administrative law will not take kindly to hacking up and down the M1 every time a council cocks up," said one barrister who specialises in bringing actions against education authorities and magistrates.

But the lawyer who represented Dame Shirley Porter, the former leader of Westminster Council, in her successful appeal against a £27m surcharge imposed by the district auditor, said he welcomed the move to broaden the exposure of public bodies to public scrutiny. Alan Langleben, litigation partner at Nicholson Graham & Jones, said a similar case involving "homes for votes" outside of London may have been decided differently.

"Judges do live in the real world where there is always the remote possibility that they are subconsciously influenced by the public's feeling," said Mr Langleben. During the Porter case the public gallery was packed with local residents who had travelled the short distance to see for themselves justice being done. Judges sitting in regional courts would be better acquainted with the strength of public feeling on issues on which they are deciding.