Elizabeth Davidson: Court closures ‘put justice under threat’
SCOTLAND should look south at the effect of “rationalisation,” finds Elizabeth Davidson
Radical change is on its way for Scotland’s sheriff court system. A new tier of “summary sheriffs” is to be introduced to deal with the simplest cases, freeing up existing sheriffs to get on with the rest. New appeal courts will be introduced, and some sheriffs will specialise in particular areas of law.
Meanwhile, the court estate is to be “rationalised” in a bid to save £2m per year, plus £6m-£9m on outstanding building maintenance. In this, Scotland is following England and Wales, where 93 magistrates’ courts and 49 county courts have fallen under the Treasury axe. The aim was to reduce running costs and raise cash by selling off redundant courthouses.
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) launched discussions on the subject in May but insists it has formed no concrete plans as yet. It will reveal in August formal proposals for consultation. Nevertheless, its discussion paper earmarks for the chop 20 sheriff courts, from Tain in the north to Duns and Kirkcudbright in the south. They have been chosen on the basis they sit less than three days a week, or serve a population of fewer than 20,000 and are within 20 miles of another court.
This raises interesting questions. Can the remaining courts cope with the extra work? Will justice continue, as the legal maxim has it, to be done and be seen to be done?
Concern about the ability of people to actually get to court on time is running particularly high in the Scottish Borders, where public transport services can at best be described as scant.
Selkirk, Duns and Peebles sheriff courts are under threat. That could leave Jedburgh sheriff court alone in the Borders. Serious criminal cases such as homicide or serious assault, and family law cases involving children, would move to Edinburgh.
Greig McDonell, a partner at Galashiels law firm Iain Smith and Partners, points out that there is only one bus every hour up to Edinburgh from many towns in the area. That raises the possibility that people from opposing sides – witnesses, the victim and the accused and their families – could be travelling up on the same bus along with warring husbands and wives.
In his response last month to the SCS paper, Sheriff Kevin Drummond expressed concern about the adverse impact on local justice and on the community, including knock-on increases in the costs of other services, such as the police and social services.
Those wary about the SCS plans may be interested in the experience of magistrates south of the Border. In 2010, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to save at least £15m a year in running costs, plus an extra £22m in maintenance of buildings. Only a handful of courts targeted for closure escaped the resulting heavily contested cull, including, coincidentally, the magistrates’ court at Newbury, where David Cameron’s mother sat as a magistrate.
In February, however, the ministry was forced to reveal it was still spending £2.5m maintaining 69 former court buildings that had closed. Capital receipts were below expectations in the current property slump.
Magistrates in England and Wales perform a similar role to that of a justice of the peace. They deal with about 95 per cent of all criminal cases in England and Wales, and can impose sentences of up to six months in prison. More serious cases, such as murder or fraud, are dealt with by the crown court.
Many of the courts finally closed between six months and a year ago, too recent for official statistics but long enough for magistrates to offer some insight into the impact.
According to Liverpool magistrate John Thornhill, the word on the grapevine is that more warrants have to be issued for non-attendance at court due to transport difficulties and longer journeys. “It becomes quite difficult to prosecute quite simple offences,” he said.
Thornhill has not noticed any significant increase in non-attendance at Liverpool City since the magistrates’ court closed at Knowsley, but says there are good transport links into town.
Barry Magistrates’ Court, in Wales, closed on New Year’s Eve, and its work has been transferred to Cardiff.
The courthouse in Barry was situated next to the local council’s offices. Council officers and lawyers nipped into court most days for cases on family law, council tax non-payment, environmental matters, fine collection and so forth.
Dave Taylor, a local magistrate, estimates that transferring the work ten miles down the road to Cardiff costs the council about £200,000 more a year. “Just parking a car in Cardiff costs £10-£15 per day,” he said. “If you have staff travelling every day it becomes expensive.” The Ministry of Justice’s saving becomes a council’s cost.
Taylor, who is chair of the Vale of Glamorgan Magistrates’ Courts, adds: “We have a bench of 70 magistrates and a lot of my colleagues now need to make a daily round trip of 30 or 40 miles, at £0.58 per mile. It’s costing £40,000-£50,000 per year to move all the magistrates to Cardiff.”
He claims Barry’s court, sold for development, was closed on “spurious grounds”. The court was in superb condition when it was demolished.
“It was supposed to save £90,000 in running costs plus the same for maintenance. They said they needed to replace all the windows at a cost of £250,000. But in the last few years they spent £3m upgrading the court, eg, putting in new lifts,” said Taylor.
Jo King is a magistrate at Sussex Central Bench, in Brighton. Lewes magistrates’ court, in her area, closed in April 2011.
She says she was not convinced about the business case for closing the court at Lewes.
“Their estimate was a saving of about £120,000 per year, but they didn’t take into account the fact other costs would rise,” she said. “There is also a subtle effect on associated agencies. The probation agencies tend to become more focused on the urban areas. People have to travel longer distances to attend their community order, which affects how they can be sentenced. There is an urbanisation of the whole system. There used to be a probation office in Lewes, but that closed as well.”
She has also seen a “dramatic increase” in the time it takes for a prosecution to go to trial: “It has gone from 11 weeks, the minimum time it takes to prepare for trial, to five months.” As well as court closures the whole criminal justice budget is decreasing..
Looking at the broader picture, King said: “One of the biggest issues is that the courts are becoming very remote from the community they serve. Justice is not being seen to be done. Cases no longer get reported in the local paper, therefore people no longer see the connection between committing offences and sentencing.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “No matter the amount of savings, it is absolutely right we provide better value for money wherever we can. Estimated savings across the spending period are £41.5m. There will also be substantial cost avoidance from not having to maintain so many buildings, and economies of scale from a much-reduced estate.
However, if the Scottish Court Service wants to maximise its savings while minimising the impact on justice, it may want to take a judicious look south of the Border.
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