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Magistrates Courts (Devon)

12.59 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I have not spoken in a debate in this Chamber since it ceased to be a hemicycle; the new layout is slightly more appropriate and lends itself more to debate.

I have crossed swords with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), on this subject a number of times. I first raised the closure of magistrates courts in Devon on 1 January 1989. I try to be logical and reasonable in my approach, as I may then stand a chance of persuading people to listen to my views, and perhaps to act upon them. Therefore, I have tried to be logical and reasonable in my arguments for keeping open seven magistrates courts in Devon, which the Government have now condemned to extinction.

I start by asking the Parliamentary Secretary why--and when--the Government turned away from their declared policy of strengthening local justice. In a recently published pamphlet, the Lord Chancellor stated:

Is it logical to ask people to travel 32 miles from Axminster to Exeter, for example, for their case to be heard? It is like asking people from Reading to travel to Ealing; I use that example because, as the Minister knows, I once represented Reading in the House. Would not the hon. Lady think it mad if people living in Ealing had to travel to Reading to attend a court hearing? It is exactly the same distance as from Axminster to Exeter. If the Government suggested that people in Ealing, or any other part of London, should travel such a distance, they would say that the Government were mad. Why is it mad in London but not in Devon?

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I congratulate the right hon. Member on securing the debate. I agree with what he says, although Ealing and Reading have public transport. In my constituency in mid-Wales, we ask whether people should travel from Llandrindod Wells to New Town, which is 30-odd miles and from Ystradgynlais to Brecon, which is another 30 miles, making a 60-mile round trip. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that what is proposed is completely unreasonable because people cannot get to court by 10 am.

Sir Peter Emery : The hon. Gentleman has moved on to the next piece of logic. Is it logical to ask people who live outside Axminster to get to court at 10 am or 10.30 am? They have to go the night before, or they cannot get to court on time. The Minister said in her letter to me that courts would be understanding about the timing. I

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have an illustration of that. The judge told one lady, "We will hear your case at 2.30 pm." She said, "That is very kind of you, your honour, but I hope that it will be over by five to 3, because I have to catch the 3 o'clock bus or I can't get home." Is that logical or reasonable? Does it make sense in terms of local justice, which the Minister claims that she wishes to further?

I turn to the availability of justices of the peace. One of the foundations of local justice has been not only that it could be heard within the area in which crimes--often petty crimes--are dealt with, but that justices of the peace were people who knew the area and often knew some of the laggards who kept appearing before them. That was local justice being administered fully and properly. Now, JPs from the Axminster area have to sit in Exeter, where there is no assurance that they will hear cases relating to the area that they come from. One JP said to me, "The only cases I ever heard were from north Devon, of which I knew absolutely nothing." Another said, "I am giving this up. Having to travel 70-odd miles to court and back just to sit is not what I was contracted to do. That is not how the deal was set when I was happy and willing to become a JP."

What does that logically portend? I believe that it portends something about which the Lord Chancellor would be very happy, but which I believe to be wrong, and condemn--that is, moving away from having local magistrates to having only stipendiary magistrates sitting all the time as, one might say, junior judges. That is not local justice as it has been built up in this country, and it should not be encouraged by any right hon. or hon. Member of whatever party.

Problems arise in relation to solicitors. A solicitor in my area has complained about the way in which the magistrates courts committee undertook the lengthy period of consultation before Axminster magistrates court was closed. There is a panel of duty solicitors at Axminster, and I should have thought that the committee would have had to insist that that was one of the first areas of consultation, but consultation there was none. The hinterland of Exeter, Taunton, Yeovil, Dorchester and Weymouth is about 50 miles wide by 20 miles deep and has a population of about 1.2 million. In that area, only four firms and one sole practitioner undertake work for the new criminal defence service. Of course, solicitors in those towns undertake criminal work, but defendants have to travel to see them and have to travel to court.

The Legal Services Commission and the criminal defence service are beginning to realise that that sort of local justice gives rise to several problems. It would be unrealistic and hopelessly uneconomic to open a criminal defence service office outside every major town, but that might be what we are coming to. Firms that undertake criminal defence service work are unlikely to have a dedicated criminal defence solicitor to replace those who have worked on the panel, and distance again becomes a major concern.

The unreasonableness of all this can be shown by a number of factors. For example, a constituent of mine from Hawkchurch arrived for court at Axminster. He shouted to the clerk, "The bus has only just got in and I have run all the way up the hill." The clerk told him that he should have taken an earlier bus, but my constituent,

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whom I know very well replied, "I caught the only bus. There is not another. It is the only one and runs once a week on a Tuesday."

I know that that sort of thing makes the Parliamentary Secretary and those who live in London and other cities smile, but we are talking about local justice in country areas. Another example is of a man from Sidmouth being summoned to appear on an allegation of driving without due care and attention. It was probably true as I think that he had hit some parked cars. He was a widower and dependent on his car for shopping. He had not driven out of Sidmouth for 20 years, but he drove to Axminster for the privilege of being disqualified, and he had to leave his car there.

The journey was only 20 miles, but there are no such problems in the cities. I am concerned that the decision that was taken in Devon was breached as a matter of convenience for those running the service, rather than for the customers or solicitors. The police are happy not to have to go to certain courts. Reliance--the private company that drives people to and from the courts--is more than happy not to have to travel to Axminster twice a week. The magistrates courts committee sees that as an easy way of dealing with the matter, but that is not how everyone feels. The Government claim to be a listening Government who want to hear from and act for the people whom they represent. That is not happening here. I have letters from local parishes in Hawkchurch and Seaton and a petition signed by 2,300 people from Exmouth who are against the closure of Exmouth court. There was a march through the town with people carrying banners, and that does not happen frequently. For the measure to stir up that sort of feeling in Exmouth is a great demonstration of local views.

I have referred to East Devon district council, but Devon county council, which used to run the court appealed against closure, said that the magistrates courts committee was mad and put its case to the Minister. I suppose that it is thought to be unreasonable or illogical that the people who know the job, having done it, were some of the strongest contenders--other than myself--urging the Government not to take the route that they did.

I am concerned that local crime is no longer reported in the local newspapers. It happens in Exeter and Honiton, but local reporters do not know when cases will be heard. One of the condemnations of the magistrates courts service inspectorate is that steps should be taken to improve the turnaround of local aid decisions as only the east Devon and west Cornwall clerks consistently comply with the two-day limit. One of the major factors in local crime is to expose local criminals to the community. The embarrassment of publicity no longer applies in east Devon.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary read the annexes to the report? East Devon comes either first or second in the table giving the percentage of defendants waiting for an hour or less for court and the staff costs per weighted case are the lowest but one. Such achievements are being thrown to one side and it is worrying that local justice is being thrown overboard. The Government have proved that they do not care that local justice was denied in seven courts in Devon last week. The Government are seeing to it that local justice does not exist in those

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localities. They are not listening and they do not seem to care. I condemn their policy in all logic and with all reasonableness.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy) : May I say what a pleasure it is to reply to an Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings? It is the first time and I look forward to many future occasions.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) on securing a debate on this important issue. I have listened carefully to all the points that he has so eloquently made. As he said in the debate that he secured in February last year, magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees. Hon. Members need to be continually reminded of that fact, which bears down heavily on the process that we go through when magistrates courts committees consider their accommodation strategy. Each committee is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts in its area.

I have said it before, but it is worth repeating, that it is for MCCs--whether urban or rural--to determine how many courthouses are required in consultation with the relevant paying authority. They must also determine what other accommodation is needed. In discharging their statutory responsibility, we expect MCCs to undertake regular reviews of their accommodation requirements. The strategic aims of the MCCs, the facilities needed and the results of their user surveys are just some of the factors that MCCs take into consideration when undertaking reviews. They have to achieve a balance between providing an efficient and effective service to court users, while maintaining secure, well-equipped court accommodation and the full utilisation of courthouse facilities.

Mr. Livsey : Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy : I resist the hon. Gentleman, who did not give me notice of his intervention. I want to reply in full to the right hon. Member for East Devon, who secured the debate. I have a lot to say to him.

Sir Peter Emery : Perhaps the hon. Lady will give way to me. I am sorry to interrupt her speech, but will she please point out that magistrates courts committees have to operate within the budget allocated by the Government and that there will be a 10 per cent. cut in the money available in the next three years as a matter of policy? The MCCs cannot do what they want; they must act within the framework dictated by the Lord Chancellor and the money that he provides.

Jane Kennedy : Clearly, magistrates courts committees must operate within a budget, but in Devon and Cornwall the final cash limit for 2000-01 was £7.43 million. That includes the initial allocation to the magistrates courts committee, plus additional sums made available during the year. For 2001-02, £8.47 million has been made available to Devon and Cornwall, and there is a bid outstanding for a further

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£1 million. I am unsure where the right hon. Gentleman obtained the figure of a 10 per cent. cut, but I shall examine that in detail as a result of his intervention.

Sir Peter Emery : Just from the Lord Chancellor.

Jane Kennedy : It is worth pointing out that, originally, the magistrates courts committee proposed the closure of 13 courts when consulting on its accommodation strategy. Although it will be no comfort to the right hon. Gentleman, who will lose his court in Axminster as a consequence of that decision and the failure of the appeal, the magistrates courts committee reduced the proposed number of courts to be closed to nine. It therefore listened to local representations and took on board local points of view.

I should like to discuss what we mean by local because one definition will not serve in every case. Local, which may denote the town, the village or the magistrates courts committee area, means different things to different people. For example, some people may view local as centred on a particular courthouse or petty sessions area, whereas others may interpret local as meaning the magistrates courts committee area. Much may depend on the size of the magistrates courts committee, but again that is for the magistrates who form the local committee to decide.

All users of magistrates courts deserve an efficient service that is delivered in well-equipped and secure buildings. Most magistrates courts that have closed have been courts that magistrates courts committees no longer felt able to justify because they lacked necessary facilities such as secure accommodation, separate waiting areas for victims and witnesses away from defendants, and access for disabled people. Those are basic standards of accommodation that all court users expect from a modern, 21st-century service.

Improvements have to be balanced against other factors such as local transport difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman ably illustrated some of the problems that local people face. The Government are particularly concerned to ensure the provision of courtrooms that enable cases to be listed in a manner that will achieve our aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. Users want their case to be heard on the day that it is listed; they do not want to make a long trek on public transport because their case has been deferred.

Transferring the work load to better-equipped centres is one way to modernise and improve the overall service that magistrates courts committees provide. Magistrates courts committees have local knowledge and are best placed to make judgments on how to use resources such as finance, staff or buildings. It is only in the event of a decision being challenged by the paying authority--as happened in this case--that the Lord Chancellor becomes involved.

The right hon. Gentleman has expressed his views on the recent appeal decisions clearly and forcefully. I should like to assure him that the decisions were made after careful consideration of the arguments, which included all representations for and against the magistrates courts committee's proposals. Indeed, he has ably and prolifically registered his views on the magistrates courts committee's proposals, not only during the debate last February, but in his question in the House last May, and when he met the Lord Chancellor in November last year.

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The right hon. Gentleman will know that he was not the only hon. Member to make representations. Several meetings were held with each of the parties to the appeals, together with local Members of Parliament, to discuss the proposed closures. The cases for and against the appeals were made vigorously at those meetings.

I will remind the right hon. Gentleman of the reasons for the decisions. In the case of each closure, the most persuasive arguments proved to be the severe under-use of courts and the inadequacy of facilities. Last year, courtrooms in Devon and Cornwall magistrates courts committee area were used for an average of only 40 per cent. of their available hours, which is significantly lower than the national average of almost 58 per cent. The Devon and Cornwall MCC demonstrated that the work could easily be absorbed by alternative venues. It carefully considered travel. Details of public transport to alternative venues, with times and costs, and the results of court user surveys, indicated how people travelled to court.

The Crown Prosecution Service and probation service support each proposed courthouse closure. As I stated in my letter of 16 March, the magistrates courts committee has given an assurance that it will be flexible in listing cases, to meet the needs of all court users, including those the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Lord Chancellor is committed to making better use of the court estate, including magistrates, crown and county courts. There is scope for further joint use of courthouses, creating more "justice centres" for the hearing of different types of case. Magistrates courts committees and local court service managers have been asked to draw up local plans, which might include other judicial users such as the coroners court, immigration appellate authorities and local tribunals. Such close working will have many benefits. For example, where two courthouses, such as a magistrates court and a county court, are close together, one might be able to accommodate all the work and only one will have to close. Such measures will improve the efficient use of our estate assets, while maintaining access to justice and releasing funds to improve facilities.

I was encouraged to learn that in Camborne, in the Devon and Cornwall MCC area, the MCC is seeking to provide a community resource in partnership with other local agencies. An old school will provide a range of facilities, including some court hearings, access to the citizens advice bureau and the local town council. Although plans have yet to be finalised and formal bids made, we welcome such an initiative in local joined-up working. A total of nine magistrates courts in Devon and Cornwall are already shared with other agencies including the Court Service, the coroners court, valuation tribunal and tax commission.

When preparing their strategic plans and consultation papers, MCCs examine everything that is relevant, including Government targets, funding details and population. They set out their strategic aims and objectives, and their plans take account of court user survey results, strategies for the use of buildings, staffing and security.

By statute, MCCs are required to consult only with paying authorities on proposals to close magistrates courts. In a spirit of good practice, and as recommended by the central council's guidance, MCCs invariably

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consult more widely. Consultees typically include magistrates, staff, police, probation services, the Crown Prosecution Service, MPs and professionals such as the solicitors whose views the right hon. Gentleman brought to our attention.

We look to provide a modern system of justice with well-equipped and secure court rooms. We want to reduce the delay in the passage of cases through the courts. That will help to achieve our aim of reducing delay throughout the criminal justice system. The local initiatives that I have described demonstrate our on-going commitment to the delivery of justice.

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair) : Order. We move to the next debate.

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