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Magistrates Courts (Rural Wales)

1.30 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I want to address some issues regarding the future of magistrates courts in rural areas of Wales, and focus in particular on my constituency of Ceredigion. I am afraid that my colleague the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) also wants to squeeze his speech into the next half an hour, so I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be allowed adequate time to respond.

I want to concentrate on two main issues--the first is the future of Lampeter magistrates court, and the second is the withdrawal of the Narey cases from Cardigan to Aberystwyth and the effect of that on the delivery of justice in Ceredigion. Currently, there are three magistrates courts in Ceredigion--Aberystwyth, Cardigan and Lampeter. However, there is at least a suggestion--I can put it no more strongly--that, in time, we will have only one magistrates court in Ceredigion. It was stated at the meeting of the Dyfed Powys magistrates courts committee on 27 September this year that the long-term strategy may be to have no more than one court complex in Pembrokeshire, one in Ceredigion, two in Powys, and two in Camarthenshire. I accept that that is merely a suggestion, but the possibility of a decrease from three magistrates courts to one has caused great concern in my constituency.

What is certain is that the Lampeter court has no listings from 1 January 2001 and that a threat of closure hangs over it. I am grateful to Clive Williams, a solicitor, for providing me with details that outline how that has happened. He says that the reduction of cases at Lampeter started earlier this year, to the extent that a meeting was organised on 2 August between the chairman and chief executive of the magistrates court committee, with town councillors and local solicitors. An assurance was given that there were no current plans to close Lampeter. We have heard the phrase "no current plans" before, and we know what it often means--that the plans are just around the corner. Sure enough, by 28 September the Dyfed Powys magistrates court committee had met and issued its strategic plan, in which it clearly states that the magistrates court committee does not believe that it can retain a third courthouse, and that it would therefore cease using Lampeter courthouse. That was implemented by the short-term proposal to stop listing cases at Lampeter from 1 January.

Many cynics may feel that, by taking Lampeter court out of use, if not actually closing it, the magistrates courts have prevented Ceredigion county council from appealing. That may be a cynics' view, but, unfortunately, it is borne out by the minutes of the meeting of the magistrates court committee on 27 September, in which it is stated that the suggestion was made to close Lampeter courthouse. It was also stated that the chief executive explained the difference between closure of courthouses and taking out of use. We know what that difference is--one can be appealed against, whereas the other cannot. I wonder what will be the likelihood of success when Lampeter is eventually closed, as a long period of disuse will have occurred. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us the success rate of closures of magistrates courts in Wales, which I think is rather low.

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A further meeting took place in Lampeter on 31 October, at which Ceredigion county council made its support for Lampeter clear. It also made the reasonable point that it could not invest in improvements at Lampeter unless it had an assurance on the long-term future of the magistrates court from the magistrates court committee. I met a cabinet of the county council on 6 November to discuss those matters, and its willingness to fund improvements or alternative accommodation was confirmed. I would accept, and no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me, that Lampeter courthouse is inadequate, but alternative provisions are being discussed--perhaps in the local school. The magistrates court committee does not propose reaching any decision based only on the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 until a code of practice is available, but that Act is one of the obstacles in Lampeter's case. However, funding is at the heart of the issue.

At the same time, there are worrying signs of downgrading at Cardigan, because it has been proposed that Narey cases should be transferred from there to Aberystwyth. Narey cases are designed to speed up the administration of justice by encouraging defendants to enter a guilty plea at the first hearing. Guilty pleas often mean that cases can be dealt with there and then, but a plea of not guilty means that the case is adjourned. However, that complicates matters still further, because the adjourned case goes back to Cardigan. Many defendants will therefore be going to and fro.

When I raised those matters with the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), she stated that no decision had been made to transfer Narey cases from Cardigan magistrates court. However, she admitted that a consultation exercise was under way. Once again, I have to tell her that, although no decision has been made, not one Narey case has been listed in Cardigan since 1 January. The management board of the Dyfed Powys magistrates court committee took the decision on 21 September 2000 to move Narey courts to Aberystwyth. That decision shows that a firm proposal to transfer the Narey courts has been made. Jointly or severally, those two decisions will lead to a severe diminution in access to justice in rural west and mid-Wales. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy would agree.

I wonder what is driving those decisions. I believe that it is a cost-cutting measure. A new funding formula from the Lord Chancellor's Department comes into force in the next financial year. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that the magistrates courts committee makes its own decisions, but I believe that the Lord Chancellor's Department pulls the strings and calls the tune. An explanation of some of those funding issues would help. Funding is given to magistrates courts on the basis of each unit of work load. That is weighted in Wales to account for the use of the Welsh language, which is appropriate, and in rural areas, including Dyfed Powys, for what is called a super-sparsity factor. We do not have a sparse population; we are super-sparse. It is one of the seven most sparsely populated areas in England and Wales.

Is that super-sparsity factor based on the English settlement made by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or on the new

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Welsh local government settlement, which is rather different? The answer to that question may reveal why the super-sparsity factor has not helped Dyfed Powys. I believe that it is being reviewed by the National Assembly to the slight favour of sparse rural areas. I do not know whether the English or the Welsh formula is used for Welsh magistrates courts. However, its effect on Dyfed Powys will be an undoubted cut of at least 2.1 per cent. in the next financial year and as much as 6.9 per cent. if the full cuts come into force. I appreciate that a damping scheme may be in place, but the Minister will no doubt say that resources are generally up by as much as 3.75 per cent., but because Dyfed Powys carries only 86 per cent. of the average work load of magistrates courts, due to the sparsity factor, it seems that it has been penalised for being rural in nature and in funding.

In addition, Dyfed Powys magistrates court committee has had a stand-still budget--it is the equivalent of the budget set in 1998-99--yet its salary and accommodation costs are up. The Lord Chancellor's Department also sets targets for the administration of justice, which are difficult to meet in rural areas. One of those targets is specifically to reduce courtroom overcapacity by 10 per cent. by March 2002. It is difficult to see how that can be achieved in rural areas without closing rural magistrates courts. Those proposals are implemented locally, but I believe that they are made in Westminster. The effect is highly injurious. I shall outline the case put to me by solicitors showing how this may affect the delivery of justice in Ceredigion and, I am sure, in other hon. Members' areas.

First, defendants face an additional 80-mile journey if they travel from Cardiff to Aberystwyth, which could involve up to two hours on public transport in a rural area, where public transport is difficult to come by. There may be additional costs for child minding for defendants, too, and for the police. It is difficult to imagine an unemployed defendant in Cardigan reaching Aberystwyth magistrates court by the start of play by means of public transport. What will happen if that defendant fails to make it to the court on time? Will the police issue a warrant for the arrest of that person?

The public and the press are important in this matter. I wonder what will happen when justice is not seen to be done locally in places such as Cardigan and Lampeter. Despite its being a sparse rural area, at least three local newspapers cover the various courts, all concentrating on different court cases. I hardly think that the local press will report cases of Cardigan crime when they are dealt with in Aberystwyth. That raises a question about the openness of the justice system.

The victim, who is of course the most important person to consider, and the victim's family will have the additional burden of travelling. In respect of Narey cases, they may have to travel from Cardigan to Aberystwyth, which may take as much as four hours altogether, to find that the case is adjourned back to Cardigan. That would be a waste of their time and an additional penalty or burden on victims and their families. Although solicitors and lawyers may not be doing that travelling for free, they will also have an additional time burden. Many cases are dealt with through legal aid, on which there will be additional

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costs. Someone is picking up the tab for the court closures--not the Lord Chancellor's Department, perhaps, but the public, the solicitors and others.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock ): I appreciate that the information I am about to give the hon. Gentleman may be new to him, but I do not want him to take a false point. Is he aware that, on 11 December, the magistrates courts committee of Dyfed Powys decided not to transfer Narey cases from Cardigan to Aberystwyth? No doubt that was, in part, a result of his strenuous representations on behalf of his constituents.

Mr. Thomas : I accept that that is the present position. I am sure that it is due not to my advocacy, but to that of the solicitors in Cardigan. Nevertheless, a long-term proposal for the kind of measure that I described is on the table, and that is the concern that I raise today.

Whether or not we accept that the Narey case change is temporarily postponed, a question mark hangs over Lampeter court and over the long-term future of Narey cases in Cardigan. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with a couple of issues. First, how will the sparsity funding issue relate to Dyfed and will a Welsh or English formula be used? Secondly, how much weight will be placed by the Lord Chancellor's Department on the need to deliver justice in rural areas? New guidelines for the closures were announced yesterday, at column 200 in Hansard. I would like to know a little more about how those closures will relate to Lampeter court. Will it be possible to put off the closure of Lampeter court until the guidelines have been considered, especially given that funding exists until April in that regard?

Finally, will the Parliamentary Secretary agree to receive a deputation from my constituency, from Lampeter town council, Ceredigion county council and solicitors involved in cases at Lampeter Crown court? Those groups are keen to meet the Parliamentary Secretary or another person from his Department to express their concerns about the future of Lampeter and the administration of justice in west Wales.

1.44 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The question of sitting days to which he referred is a way to close magistrates courts by stealth. Unfortunately, we are seeing the wholesale closure of rural magistrates courts. When I first started as a lawyer in Meirionnydd, there were six magistrates courts. We are now down to the last one, in the second largest constituency in Wales, for 100 miles north, south, east and west.

Under the previous Government, I appealed, along with the local council, against the closure of Blaenau Ffestiniog magistrates court, and was given a sympathetic hearing by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter). The general election intervened, and we were given a meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence who, patently, did not want to listen to our appeal, and it was turned down with virtually no discussion.

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The Government are now presiding over the wholesale destruction of the magistrates courts network. I was told on 31 October 2000 that in 1995

The downward pressure on magistrates courts that comes from the Lord Chancellor's Department, and the bonuses offered to clerks to rationalise, militated against any form of local justice. The Department is the appellate body for appeals from magistrates courts, and I have already referred to the appallingly low rates of success that appeals attract. The closures are politically driven from the Treasury. There is no point in the Government saying that access to justice is important. With changes in the legal aid service, the Legal Services Commission, solicitors moving away from doing criminal work altogether so that experienced people are being lost to the profession, and the withdrawal of legal aid for personal injury, there is less access to justice, and magistrates courts are being closed down wholesale.

According to justices of the peace to whom I speak, whom I have known for many years and who are apolitical--or certainly not of my persuasion--the subtext is that stipendiary magistrates are seen to be the flavour of the month. As a practising lawyer, I would much prefer to appear before a lay Bench. The problem is that the Government will not listen to appeals. With respect, the appeal procedure is virtually a waste of time. There is no point in saying that it is up to the local authority and local magistrates to decide. They are being pressurised into making cuts, and the sooner the Government reverse their policy, the better.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate on what is a very busy day for him--he also has the first question at Prime Minister's questions.

I assure hon. Members that magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) reminded us, under the Justice of the Peace Act 1997, each of those committees is responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts in their area. Dyfed Powys MCC, in which the hon. Member's constituency falls, has yet to finalise the accommodation strategy for the entire area. It is for the MCC, in consultation with the relevant paying authority, to determine how many courthouses are needed, whether urban or rural, and what other accommodation is needed locally.

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It is worth reiterating that the reviews are perfectly sensible and rational. We expect no less of the MCCs in fulfilling their responsibilities. They must decide the most efficient way to discharge their statutory duty. That matter is, rightly, solely within the responsibility of local magistrates and MCCs. Clearly, when resources are tight, it is for the local committee to manage within them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the grant application formula and suggested that it was to be changed from next year, and that changes that took place this year in magistrates courts provision in his constituency were in some sense driven by the funding formula changes that were due to come into force.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we consulted on changes to the magistrates formula but, as I am sure he would accept, it is a complex matter. The results of the consultation were, on balance, unfavourable. Therefore my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor decided not to implement the current proposals for changes to the formula, mainly because the work load information on which they are based is too unreliable to secure the confidence of the service as a whole. I hope that he will welcome that.

Work will be taken forward in 2001 to obtain more reliable information. The revenue allocation for the magistrates courts committees in Wales as a whole is rising by 6.7 per cent. next year. In Dyfed Powys it is rising from £3.1 million to £3.3 million, a rise of 6.45 per cent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome those revenue allocations and will realise that expecting cuts year on year is not the Government's approach and that revenue is available to ensure that the magistrates courts committees can do their job locally in the way that they consider most effective.

Mr. Simon Thomas : I accept the Minister's point, but I was trying to make the point that the magistrates courts committee had put together a strategy based on what it expected the funding formula to be. It is pursuing that strategy and, at present, it looks likely to lead to the closure of magistrates courts in Ceredigion.

Mr. Lock : That is a fair point. The strategy has been consulted upon.

On Lampeter, the hon. Gentleman is right that the magistrates courts committee intends to take Lampeter out of use from 1 January 2001. There are various reasons for not using it. First, as there are no usable cells, custody cases cannot be taken there. Secondly, the building has major problems meeting the impending requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That problem is not unique to Wales; it applies to small magistrates courts throughout England and Wales. It is important that they service the needs of all constituents and the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act must be faced. If there is no disabled access and if there are problems with disability rights, we must deal with those problems fairly.

Thirdly, security for the magistrates and staff is poor at Lampeter. There is no separate access to the building for magistrates, who have to retire from the bench through the public waiting area. There are not even separate toilet facilities. Cases that magistrates hear are often serious and bitterly contested. It is important that

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these volunteers--I am committed to the lay magistracy--are properly protected, can do their work in the right environment and deliver their service to the public in appropriate conditions. At present that is not possible in the Lampeter courthouse.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the Minister agree that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was never intended to cause the closure of those vital local magistrates courts? As he has, by implication, supported the principle of local magistrates provision, will he be sympathetic to proposals that come from Montgomeryshire and elsewhere if local lawyers can find sensible, cost-effective proposals to reinstate that provision?

Mr. Lock : If the magistrates courts committee wanted to improve facilities, it could submit a bid for capital funding from my Department. In Dyfed Powys, in the last financial year, there were bids from the magistrates courts committee for improvements that amounted to £183,467. It is not as if the Department were not investing in magistrates courts. A considerable amount of investment is available, but it is up to the magistrates courts committee to decide what is feasible and practical and then to submit its bids. At present, no bids have been submitted to improve facilities at Lampeter. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is in discussions with the council. If there are alternatives to providing appropriate facilities in Lampeter, that matter must initially be put to and pursued with the magistrates courts committee. It is responsible for delivering justice in its area.

The essential feature of local justice is that magistrates live or work in the locality; it is not simply about the local delivery of justice. It is not an essential feature of local justice for every community to have its own courthouse. MCCs must balance the need for a locally delivered service with the need to improve the quality of that service with the resources available to them. I have referred to the resources that will be available next year. MCCs are mindful of the Government's aim to reduce delay by providing the optimum number of courtrooms in their area, permitting flexible listing of cases.

Courtroom utilisation figures for last year show that, overall, the magistrates courts committees in Wales use courtrooms for about 44 per cent. of the time. That is significantly below the national average of 57 per cent. For Dyfed Powys, the utilisation figure is 45 per cent., which is substantially below the national average.

The Lord Chancellor is committed to making better use of the court estate, which includes magistrates, Crown and county courts. There is considerable scope for better joint use of courthouses to create justice centres where hearings of different types of cases can be conducted. Magistrates courts committees and local court service managers have been asked to draw up

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plans for their areas. That might include other judicial users such as coroners courts, the Immigration Appellate Authority or local tribunals. We must ensure that we make the best use of the Crown estate and our courtrooms for the maximum amount of time. Using them for less than half the time, as happens at present, is not a sensible use of the investment that the public have made in those buildings.

Mr. Llwyd : Surely the point is that we are dealing with large but sparsely populated hinterlands and rural areas. Inevitably, courthouses in such places will never be as busy as a city-centre courthouse. That is as plain as a pikestaff. With respect, the figures quoted do not reflect that problem.

Mr. Lock : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and accept it to some extent. However, we have provided £3.4 million to carry out 60 projects to improve courthouses in Wales. Security has been improved at a number of courts. Work to improve disabled facilities, for example, by the provision of hearing loop systems and the installation of automatic entrance doors has been approved, and further works will be carried out. We must balance the local communities' need to have justice within a reasonable distance with the need to ensure that the centres where justice is delivered are of a reasonable standard. That is a difficult balance to strike and must, in the first instance, be a matter for the local magistrates courts committees, rather than the Government.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked whether I or the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), would be prepared to meet a delegation. In the first instance, the delegation should go to the magistrates courts committee, because we are talking about decisions taken locally. It is not right for Ministers to seek to usurp its jurisdiction or discretion. If the hon. Gentleman is not happy with final decisions taken by magistrates courts committees, I am sure that my ministerial colleague or I would be prepared to meet him to discuss his concerns. In the first instance, the accommodation strategy--which has not yet been finalised--is a matter for the local magistrates courts committee.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new guidelines on closures. In the House yesterday, my ministerial colleague said that they would be published shortly. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is sent a copy of them. I am afraid that I cannot tell him in advance what they are likely to contain, but I entirely accept his legitimate point about the difference between closing a court where there is an appeal by the paying authority and merely not listing cases at a court. At present, there is no appeal.

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