Sunday 18 December 2011

As the year draws to a close - farewell to "local justice"

Goole Magistrates' Court
During 2011, many Magistrates' Courts have closed under the government's hatchet-job on local justice.  These closures build on earlier cuts - all imposed under the mantras of "efficiency" and "economy."  The closures are all over the country and have the effect that the magistrates' court system will be concentrated on fewer but, usually, larger courts.  One result will be that those involved in cases may well be subjected to lengthy journeys, often with poor and reducing public transport, and the undoubted stress felt by witnesses will be increased.

A further effect, which is regrettable in my view, is that fewer people will be needed in the future to fill the important - but, sadly,  minimally appreciated - office of Justice of the Peace.  This will only serve to make the law even more remote from ordinary people.  Furthermore,
the ancient idea of "trial by peers" (equals) even at a summary justice level suffers a further blow.  Trial, that is to say, by local people who live and work in their area and know its problems well.  These factors operate, often intangibly, to make justice fairer for the individual.  As these "efficiencies" bite, those who remain sitting as "justices" may have to sit longer or at more inconvenient hours and evening or weekend courts have been suggested in some quarters.  Justice is not administered well by tired people.  I will forecast that even more District Judges (Magistrates' Courts) will be appointed.  It will be argued that they are needed to keep on top of the throughput of cases - as appears to have happened already at Northampton - (the linked article speaks for itself).

Of course, I do not seek to argue that there was no scope for savings.  There were some courts with relatively few cases.  There were others located in old buildings which would have been seriously costly to modernise.  Nevertheless, as ever, we seem to see rather too extensive use of the chain saw.  Courts which either have or will now fade into honourable history are:

North-East: Guisborough, Houghton-le-Spring, Tyndale, Blaydon, Bishop Auckland, Alnwick, Gosforth, Goole, Keighley

Salford joins with nearby Manchester
North-West: Rawtenstall, Penrith, Whitehaven, Northwich, Southport, Rochdale, Salford, Knowsley

Midlands: West Bromwich, Ludlow, Tamworth, Retford, Daventry, Halesowen, Market Drayton, Oswestry, Rutland, Towcester, Ilkeston, Sutton Coldfield, Rugby, Melton Mowbray, Coalville, Market Harborough, Newark

South-East: Sudbury, Ely, Wisbech, Thetford, Cromer, Swaffham, Grays, Amersham, Witney, Lewes, Didcot, Epsom, Ashford, Woking, Sittingbourne, Hemel Hempstead.

London Region: Acton, Sutton, Kingston upon Thames, Harrow, Woolwich, Barking, Brentford, Balham Youth Court

South West: Frome, Totnes, Coleford, Cirencester, Liskeard, Honiton, Lyndhurst, Wimborne, Penzance, Blandford Forum

Wales: Llandovery, Llangefni, Flint, Chepstow, Abertillery, Llwynypia, Cardigan, Pwllheli, Aberdare, Barry, Ammanford .... see BBC Wales re closures

Former Whitby Magistrates - closed 2010

You have served the public well and the legal system may well be the poorer for your passing.  Regrettably, even more face the axe in 2012 to 2014.  A considerable number of County Court sites have also closed during 2011.  My apologies if I missed anyone out.  If so, please let me know.

Law Society Gazette - "Justice Secretary announces court closures"


  1. Llwynypia Court (for one) is not an old building. It was built in the 90s and features separate entrances, access for disabled people etc. Court users will now need to travel about 20 miles and public transport is not great in this area. I see the building is on sale for £290k.

  2. I remember, when I was in the court service 15 years ago and there was a similar round of closures, a justification given for the longer distances to court confronting court users by a senior manager, "For most people attending court is a once in a lifetime experience, why should we cater for those who make a habit of it?" Seems like we are going to be hearing a lot more of this sort of callousness.

  3. @ Peter - Indeed. Witnesses to assaults etc. may also have to attend only once but these changes make it much harder for them.

    @ Julie - Yes, I looked up Llwynypia and found the advert !! Basically, quite a fine looking building.

  4. And a new large round of appointments of Deptuty DJ's announced in the Benchmark magazine (or whatever its called) that I recieved today will only speed to demise of the JP...

  5. Also Highgate is to close at some point in 2012

  6. @ London JP - thanks. Sadly, I agree that the days of the volunteer "lay" justice do appear to be numbered. I wrote about this earlier this year - Explaining the Law No. 5 - Magistrates.

    The recent idea - mentioned by Nick Herbert MP - of using JPs in some other way is interesting but, as yet, we do not have sufficient detail and I understand that objections have already been put forward to it. It looked to me as if they would legislate for a further "single justice power" to permit sentencing in straightforward guilty plea cases. Unfortunately, single justice powers are generally exercised by the legal advisers. I cannot really see them trying to assemble three JPs and a legal adviser at Police Stations to deal with such cases and, furthermore, I do not think it would be a good thing to do from the point of view of the bench being impartial.

  7. @ObiterJ - I agree. A single JP sitting at police stations is a bad idea. The strengths of the whole JP system is that we sit in three's, bringing better decision making, and that we are independent. I could see a lone JP sitting in a poice station in danger of losing that independence.