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1 May 2002 : Column 242WH

Magistrates Courts (Essex)

1.30 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring this matter before the House. Before I go any further I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a partner in a firm of solicitors in Essex, practising in the magistrates courts.

The Minister and, I suspect, his predecessors are well versed in responding to these debates as a result of the number of times that they appear here in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber. As recently as 17 April the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) secured an Adjournment debate to oppose the closure of Larne magistrates court. To research the debate I could have gone back through Hansard to see how many times the closure of magistrates courts appeared. While it is not the most frequent topic, it appears very regularly.

My reason for raising the matter at this time is the remorseless advance of the private finance initiative in Essex. Private finance offers the opportunity for the magistrates courts committee to seek private capital and private funding for the restructuring or rebuilding of courthouses in the county. I do not propose to debate whether the PFI is the right or the wrong approach; that is a debate for another day. But it is the impetus for the prospective closure of a number of courts in Essex, and a scheme was approved by the Essex magistrates courts committee at its meeting on 25 February 2002.

If the PFI goes ahead it will result in the closure of the court at Witham, in my constituency, following the closure of the court at Braintree some four years ago. In addition courts at Harwich, Epping and Grays are scheduled for closure. As a result, Essex, one of the larger and most populous counties, will have only five courthouses. I have practised in the magistrates courts in Essex for more than a quarter of a century. Over that time courts have been closed in all parts of the county. In the last 20 years we have lost courts at Halstead, Maldon, Brentwood, Billericay, Southminster, Castle Hedingham, Braintree, Saffron Walden, Clacton and Dunmow. That is before we reach the latest round of court closure.

Soon after my election to this House in 1997, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), a near neighbour of mine, initiated a debate on the then most recent round of closures. Notwithstanding the united opposition of the county council, the district council, the town councils for neighbouring and potentially benefiting towns and the police, three further magistrates courts were closed, including Braintree. In that debate, the hon. Gentleman proved himself to be an adept soothsayer. He said:

Unfortunately, time has not proved to be very full. In less than five years the five courts that he predicted are now envisaged.

My concerns as to the intentions of the magistrates courts committee were alerted in 1997–98. As a result of my fear about its intentions regarding the courthouse at Witham, I wrote in early 1999 to the then and present

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chief executive of the magistrates courts committee, Mr. Peter McGuirk. I shall quote his reply at some length or I may seem to be unfair. In 1999, he told me:

the magistrates courts committee—

in 1997–98—

The medium term was referred to only three years ago, but the current proposals were made at least by last summer.

The arguments against courthouse closures have been advanced in the House certainly during the whole time that I have been here and, I suspect, for the previous 20 years as well. However, Governments of both political persuasions have thus far appeared deaf to those arguments. I have yet to see a study that shows the savings that can be found by closing courthouses matched with the increased expenditure that results to other services. One does not have to be a high-ranking chartered accountant to understand that, if a courthouse is closed in one town, there will be additional expenditure for the police, the legal aid fund, social services, local councils and the probation service.

In 1997, my own council, Braintree district, which fully supported keeping local courthouses open, estimated that transferring its prosecution work to other courts would cost it some £10,000 to £12,000 per year. That was just one element in the additional cost equation, which always seems to be put to one side when the matter of balancing the finances is raised.

Also in 1997, the then chief constable of Essex, and my constituent, John Burrow, wrote about the closures at that time:

Ultimately, the loss of local justice is at the heart of the objection to closing courthouses. That concept is lost as one ploughs through the jargon-ridden apology for the private finance initiative in Essex and the consequent closures of courthouses.

I should like to refer to a consultation document, although I suspect that hon. Members have almost no greater fear than the word "consultation". As one often fears, consultation takes place, but listening does not result. Objective No. 2 in that document refers to "reasonable accessibility" to courthouses. Then, of course, as is the trick of the trade, that phrase is defined so as to produce the desired result.

In the county of Essex, it has been estimated that it is reasonable for witnesses, defendants and others to be able to reach a courthouse after a journey of one and a

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half hours by public transport, plus a further 15-minute walk from the bus stop or railway station. Of course, that takes no account of the bus being cancelled, the train being late or someone having to walk down to catch the train at a suitable time. It takes no account of someone thereafter leaving the courthouse to return home. However, that is the definition, and a formula is then constructed whereby the closures will not be adverse to the benefit of the public.

A travel survey has also been commissioned, which seeks to show that most people who attend courts do not necessarily come from the district where the court is. However, one must go beyond the travel survey to discover the true position. Already, the magistrates courts in the county of Essex are allocated different kinds of cases; thus there are trials in one court and pleas in another court in another district. It is in the nature of that system that already people are being moved around the county.

I have been worried for several years about the diminution of local justice, which reduces the position of the magistrate in the legal system and in counties and boroughs. The essence of a magistrate is their familiarity with the locality in which they serve. Magistrates have an interest and a pride in their township or rural district and sit on the bench to serve local people by using their local knowledge. A magistrate from Chelmsford who sat in Basildon would probably not have an exhaustive knowledge of the street systems of Basildon; that would be difficult even if one lived in Basildon. In a road traffic case or a case involving a public disturbance in the street, it is most useful to know exactly how the streets lie in order to judge whether witness A's statement is believable, for example.

The local element is crucial to a magistrate's ability to serve, but it is not just a matter of knowledge but of pride in the position. People who serve on the magistrates' bench in their own locality know that they are carrying out a community function by serving their neighbours, friends and others who live there. The defendants who appear before them are usually based locally and might have some remorse or concern about their actions knowing that they are appearing in the midst of their own community.

In the mid 1970s, I frequently appeared at Southminster magistrates court—long since gone—which was out on the marshes on the Dengie peninsula. That tiny courthouse would not fulfil any of the criteria for a modern and convenient courthouse. It was next to the police station in a village on a railway line that, remarkably, escaped Dr. Beeching's axe in the 1960s. Most people involved in that little court knew each other and at the end of the proceedings on a Friday morning, which is when it sat, the prosecutor, the defence advocate, the magistrates, the clerk and the defendants would adjourn to a nearby pub for lunch. That gave one a real sense of what community was, and justice, too.

I was especially impressed by one of the magistrates, a kindly man who owned a local works, when a young man appeared before him who was, I suspect, not inherently bad, but in endless mischief. The magistrates were usually indulgent with him, but eventually they had no choice but to send him to prison. What may not happen today is that when the young man came out of

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prison that same magistrate, who was chairman of the bench, offered the young man a job in his works. That shows the sense of community that is now being lost.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. My constituency, too, is in Essex. The hon. Gentleman will share my wish to pay tribute to the lay people who serve on magistrates' benches throughout the country. They do an excellent job and give their time selflessly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost of the closures and to quality. Will he reinforce what he said about the impact of the closures on the quality and speedy administration of justice? They are essential not just to the witnesses and the community but to the defendants. Court closures tend to make justice seem more remote to those communities and, in some cases, have delayed the administration of justice. They have not served justice well. I entirely support the hon. Gentleman's theme.

Mr. Hurst : I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I have described a courthouse in the country that I visited regularly in the 1970s. Within the past two or three weeks, I visited Southend magistrates court. I went into the main remand court and was faced with a dock that was made from reinforced glass to the ceiling. It had slits in it for the defendant to whisper through to his advocate or to the magistrates. I was put in mind of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the special booth that was constructed for his trial in 1960–61, as those of my generation and older will remember. The appearance of the reinforced dock in Southend was more reminiscent of a war crimes tribunal than a magistrates court. Indeed, the only hearing at which I was present was in respect of a defendant who had pleaded guilty within that dock to not wearing a seat belt.

We must try to refresh ourselves with the spirit of what local justice is about. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to his colleagues to see whether we can stop going down the road that we have been going down for the past 25 years. Mr. O'Brien, you heard an earlier debate in which the Prime Minister was quoted, referring to the importance of strengthening local communities. Here is an opportunity to think again about how justice can become local justice and, thus, real justice.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills) : I start by extending my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on securing the debate. The issue of magistrates courts is emotive and I well understand how important it is to his constituents and to those of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The debate comes at a time when magistrates courts are undergoing a huge change. More change is likely to come. Sir Robin Auld published his report at the end of last year; the Government will be announcing their conclusions and how they intend to proceed on the basis of that report imminently. Undoubtedly, there will be implications for the future of magistrates courts in that process.

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Before I deal with the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, it may help if I clarify the basis on which we proceed in such matters. Magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, as set out under the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts in their areas. It is for the MCCs, in consultation with their relevant paying authorities, to determine how many courthouses—whether urban or rural—and what other accommodation is needed locally. In discharging their statutory responsibilities, we expect MCCs to undertake regular reviews of their accommodation requirements. That may account for the timing of the MCC in Essex, to which my hon. Friend referred earlier.

The strategic aims of the MCC, the facilities that are needed and the results of user surveys are only some of the factors that the committees take into consideration when undertaking such reviews. They have to achieve a balance between providing an efficient and effective service to their users, while maintaining secure, well-equipped court accommodation, and ensuring, when reasonably possible, full utilisation of court facilities. All magistrates court users, whether victims, witnesses, defendants or professional people, deserve an efficient service that is delivered in well-equipped and secure buildings, in accordance with basic standards of accommodation that people would expect today.

My hon. Friend gave a powerful and evocative description of the early 1970s and local justice as it was delivered then. Sadly in many ways, the world has moved on in the past 30 years. To pick up on one of his points, security is a real issue in our courts, and it would be remiss of both magistrates courts committees and the Government if we assumed that the world had not changed and that the same security provisions were appropriate. Sadly, they are not. Security is a concern for the Government, and we expect magistrates courts committees to consider that.

Most of the magistrates courts that have been closed—my hon. Friend referred to some—are those that magistrates courts committees could no longer justify keeping open, because they lacked the necessary facilities. Improvements in accommodation must be balanced against other factors, and local transport difficulties are important. My hon. Friend cited telling examples of the problems that concerned him and his constituents; we expect magistrates courts committees to take those into account.

As a Government, we are particularly concerned that courtrooms are provided that are best suited to enable cases to be listed and heard in a manner that will achieve our core aim of reducing delays in the criminal justice system. Court users want and expect their cases to be heard on the day that they are listed. Transferring work load to better equipped centres is one way of modernising and improving the overall service. The magistrates courts committees have the local knowledge and are best placed to make the judgments about how to use their resources—finance, staff and buildings. The Lord Chancellor becomes involved only in the event that a decision is challenged by the paying authority.

This is not a court closure programme, but where, for example, two courthouses are close together and the work can be accommodated in one, it makes sense to

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have only one. In that way, we can maintain access to justice and release funds to improve the facilities and efficient use of our estate assets. The Lord Chancellor is committed to making better use of the court estate, which includes magistrates, Crown and county courts, and there is considerable scope for greater joint use of courthouses to create more justice centres.

Inevitably, some hard decisions will have to be taken, and we appreciate how difficult it can be for local communities to confront them. However, we also know that the public expect well-equipped and secure courthouses, and we are determined to deliver them. In the year 2000 spending review, additional money was made available to address security, health and safety, the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the maintenance backlog that many magistrates courts were experiencing. Those areas have been, and will continue to be, treated as priorities.

In 2001–02, the Department spent £25.5 million on improving magistrates courts. Interview rooms and custody areas were fitted at seven courthouses, some 10 courthouses were made compliant with the 1995 Act and custody areas in 19 courts were refurbished. We intend to spend a further £40.5 million in 2002–03. So far this year, we have provided funding to undertake extensive refurbishment of two courts, improving access to 28 courthouses for the disabled, and improving or installing closed circuit television provision in 16 courthouses. In 2001–02, some £137,458 was allocated to Essex magistrates courts committee to undertake work such as the installation of secure docks at Basildon and Southend, the removal of ligature points and cells at Colchester, and the replacement of air conditioning in the information technology room at Southend. One bid has been approved for Chelmsford in this financial year to secure a dock.

We are investing real money to improve facilities, and I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the Government's commitment. That is in addition to the continuing court-building programme, which is procured through the public-private partnership. My hon. Friend referred to the "onward march" of the private finance initiative in Essex, but we must accept that it is a way in which Government can provide more modern courtrooms. We have £70 million of credits allocated in each of the next three years, and we can now build new courthouses for the first time for many years. The Lord Chancellor's Department and the Court Service are committed to using public-private partnerships as a main element of our investment plans to improve court facilities and services. However, that approach will be adopted only where it offers the prospect of better value for money, and more effective management of risk than other methods of procurement.

Bob Spink : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills : I should point out that I have little time left to make my remarks.

Bob Spink : I will be quick. On value for money, would it be better to apply the money to small, local, less

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formal courts that could deal with appropriate cases more quickly and efficiently, so that justice appears to be less remote?

Mr. Wills : That may always be more appropriate in certain circumstances, but not as a point of principle, which I believe was the hon. Gentleman's point. Public-private partnerships are the way forward if they offer a more effective management of risk and real value for money. The form that they will take is largely a matter for the magistrates courts committee to decide, as it has knowledge of local circumstances.

In February 2001, the Essex magistrates courts committee secured a place in the public-private partnership scheme. In July 2001, there was consultation on its proposals, and in January 2002, a second consultation exercise was undertaken on its preferred option. A package of court and office accommodation was then identified that would be provided under the scheme. During that period, the magistrates courts committee gathered information by means of feasibility studies, travel surveys and so on.

On 8 April 2002, the Essex magistrates courts committee made a final determination, under section 56(1) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, that its paying authorities should provide new magistrates' courthouses, in accordance with section 55(1) of the Act, in Colchester in north-east Essex, Basildon or Grays in mid-south and south-east Essex, Southend in south-east Essex, and Chelmsford in mid-north Essex. It is anticipated that the new accommodation will be available in 2006–07. The programme could include court closures, and I am sure that we are all aware that the magistrates courts committee's determination includes a new courthouse in Chelmsford to replace the Chelmsford and Witham courthouses.

The three paying authorities in Essex have until 10 May to appeal against the determination. If appeals are lodged, I will be asked to take a decision that will be final and binding on all parties. I am happy to meet all interested parties if an appeal is lodged, and to discuss points that have been raised in debate in more detail than I have time to supply today. If no appeal is submitted to the Court Service, the outline business case can be submitted to the Court Service. Once an agreement has been reached between the Court Service, the magistrates courts committee and local paying authorities on where the courts and offices should be located, the outline business case will be submitted to the project review group for formal endorsement. Once endorsed, the project will be put to the market.

Critically, the outline business case cannot be submitted to the project review group for endorsement without the full support of each of the three paying authorities that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree knows are involved. The magistrates courts committee is endeavouring to secure agreement on a positive way forward, but with full local involvement. I cannot confirm at this stage where new courts will be located and which courts may close.

I hope that I have outlined the processes involved in the weeks ahead to the satisfaction of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Castle Point. They will see that

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there is time and scope for further representations to be made about points that they raised. Whatever happens during the process, I hope that we shall be able to reassure them about the provision of local justice in Essex. Above all, I hope that in turn they will recognise the requirement on Government to provide an effective and modern system of justice that is delivered locally, but with full account taken of the expectations of those

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who use the courts. People who use courts expect modern facilities, secure accommodation, and facilities for victims and witnesses that are segregated from those for defendants wherever possible. People expect and deserve that sort of justice, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that that must be our main concern if progress is to be made in Essex.

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