Thursday, 21 October 2010

Courts facing closure: views of Lord Justice Goldring --- and other matters

On 6th September we asked “Is “Justice” in safe hands”?   That post looked (amongst other things) at the cuts to the Magistrates’ Courts:

“The previous Labour government started the hatchet job on magistrates' courts and the axe has been taken up with relish by Kenneth Clarke.  The vast majority of criminal cases are dealt with by the magistrates' courts and access to such courts is essential.  The closures will mean that many victims and witnesses will have to travel further to get their cases heard.  The extended travel distances will inevitably result in more people failing to turn up on the day especially if, as seems likely, the usual attention is paid to wintry conditions on the roads.  The axeing of "local justice" will also have the effect of disengaging from the legal system those active citizens who care about things and who have been willing to give their time to serve as magistrates.”

It would appear that the Senior Presiding Judge – Lord Justice Goldring – agrees wholeheartedly with those views though it is highly unlikely that His Lordship pays much attention to law blogs!  Goldring LJ has responded to the Ministry of Justice proposals to close down many magistrates’ courts and his views may be read in the Solicitor’ Journal.    He points out that the consultation contains factual errors;  fails to take account of travelling times or the impact on family work and he warns of the prospect of further delay to dealing with cases.  Also, the projected savings of £15m ignore additional costs created by the closures and the loss of local courts could damage the recruitment and morale of magistrate.

Following on from the Spending Review, The Guardian claims that one in five prison and probation officers will lose their jobs - see "Policing and Criminal Justice cut by 20%."   Even if The Guardian's headline claim is rather simplistic - (since x% off a budget does not necessarily equate to x% staff) - the impact is likely to be severe.  It is little use seeking to send more offenders on community sentences if the various programmes are not properly manned by well-qualified and experienced personnel.  The delivery of quality community programmes will be even more essential if the confidence of the judges, magistracy and the general public is to be maintained.

In the Family Justice Area, the government has announced that fees charged to local authorities for bringing care proceedings will not be abolished pending the outcome of the Family Justice Review which is looking at reforms to the handling of both public and private law family cases.  The Solicitor's Journal carries the story.

Footnote:  The building pictured above is Salford Magistrates' Court which the Ministry of Justice has included in the proposals for closures.  Although Salford is a distinct city to Manchester and has its own proud history it will end up without a magistrates' court.  The principal reason seems to be that there is no money to refurbish this fine old building.  The outcome will be that two cities will share what is now Manchester City Magistrates' Court which is just about managing to cope at present with Manchester's work.

Addendum 26th October:  It now seems that Salford Council are putting forward a proposal which may save Salford Magistrates Court - see BBC.  A solution along the lines suggested would make eminent good sense.  The alternative would be closure of a "listed" building which would rapidly deteriorate and become an eyesore in central Salford.


  1. Manchester Mags is managing? What a laugh. The building is simply not fit for purpose now let alone if we get interlopers from Salford joining us. In fact, the building at Salford has far better facilities for solcitors, a better canteen and much better courtrooms. The ONLY downside of Salford is that the parking is abysmal. Other than that I would say that if one court must be closed it should be the heap that is MCMC. And, I stress that I am a Manchester solicitor so hardly prejudiced in favour of my home court.

  2. Yes Anonymous - you are right. I did write "just about managing" and I was somewhat tongue in cheek as I wrote it. I note also that part of the MoJ's argument for closing Salford was that the two court buildings are only a short distance apart physically. [I believe that there is a considerable "cultural" difference however]. The short distance is, so they argue, only a few minutes extra on the bus. They seem to take no account of the fact that the ground floor of the Manchester Court building is taken up by shops and most of the upper floors are taken up by administrators.

  3. Blame Geoff Hoon for the current size, disposition, and facilities at MCMC. However, the old Salford building has been known to be unfit for purpose for at least ten years. That was why a new building was proposed at Swinton to be built with PFI money. And that was only due to Hazel Blears. The rationalisation of magistrates courts is long overdue. Leaving aside the particulars of Manchester and Salford, some courts are just too small to provide the variety and amount of work to give the necessary level of experience for magistrates to remain competent, and to provide a good level of service for all users.

  4. Anonymous, yes, looking at the history of it, the Salford Building was going to be closed several years ago by what was then the Greater Manchester Magistrates Courts Committee. They were also going to close Bolton (another quite old building). Given the Labour government of the day and the large number of Labour MPs in Greater Manchester it just did not happen. There was then a proposal to build an entirely new court building to replace Salford. That came to nothing.

    In general, looking at the wider national picture, I agree that there is a clear need to rationalise some of the Magistrates' Courts. Lord Justice Goldring clearly acknowledged that. However, the Manchester / Salford amalgamation seems to me to be a step too far given the problems already evident at MCMC.

    It is also worth noting that the magistrates' family proceedings work in City of Manchester is now dealt with in the Civil Justice Centre (CJC). It seems that, from April 2011, all the public law family work of Greater Manchester will be at the CJC as well as City of Manchester's private law work. If the amalgamation of City of Manchestera and Salford goes ahead then CJC would also hear Salford private law work.

    In fact, I think that the centralisation of public law family work makes good sense. Those magistrates who sit in Manchester actually get a lot of exposure to this work whereas in some local family proceedings courts they get very little.

    Despite the family work being in CJC, the MCMC is clearly already very close to capacity with its criminal work and it is far from clear just how additional work will be shoe-horned into there.

  5. In all honesty, some of the smaller, more obscure and hard to get to County Courts will not be missed. Have you ever been to Skegness County Court for example? Actually I had some very nice fish and chips by the seafront while waiting for a train to get me outta there. Evesham and Buxton are in pretty parts of the countrybut the back end of nowhere. Some of the North Wales courts are pure comedy in terms of accessibility...

    Question from bus driver 'are you one of those gentlement from London?'

    We are in 'League of Gentlemen' territory here.

  6. Never got to Skegness!! There have been many small and rather quaint locations where courts were held and, in some cases still are. Examples include the Assize at Appleby but that's a long time ago and Windermere Magistrates (now merged into Kendal with, so it seems, no ill effects).

    We cannot fight all change and everyone acknowledges that many of the smaller courts will go to the wall. I certainly would not include Salford Magistrates' Court in the "small" category. It has a significant workload with its own DJ(MC) as well as some 150 or more JPs.

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