Courts becoming too separate from community

 

As we report this week, Macclesfield Magistrates’ Court has closed, which means that if you plead not guilty, you face a trek to Stockport for the trial. (Guilty pleas go to Crewe).

When I started covering court it was Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire, Thursday mornings and the sound of chickens outside. It was quaint even then.

The Congleton Bench used to sit in the town hall, before, like the Upton-upon-Severn court, it was closed.

Cases from Congleton moved first to Sandbach and then to Crewe or Macclesfield, and now Crewe or Stockport.

Last year I complained about the-then new criminal courts charge, which meant that people convicted of offences had to pay up to £1,200 towards the cost of their court case. At the time, I argued that it was a stealthy and hefty tax, imposed with little public opposition onto a class of people who can’t afford it.

The criminal courts charge was soon dropped but the erosion of the local court system is cost cutting by the Government aimed at those for whom most people don’t have sympathy.

But aside from the fact that people without much money are forced to travel further to have the courts take even more money off them, the system is getting more and more remote from the people it serves.

Back in the day when Upton-upon-Severn or Congleton had its own court, the magistrates serving on the Bench would have known most of the people who came up before it.

At another local court — Ledbury magistrates, Herefordshire, now closed and turned into rather charmless houses — I was out buying lunch when all three members of the Bench separately approached me to ask me to be kind to a petty thief they’d just dealt with. They knew that person’s history and what problems they’d suffered in recent years, far better than any probation report.

Now courts are far more distant and magistrates recruited from an ever-increasing pool, who will often have no real idea of the background of the people before them.

While trying to find out when the Ledbury court closed, I found that it’s now planned to close the Hereford court and force people to travel to Worcester, or even Kidderminster and Redditch. In a rural county with narrow roads, that’s a long way.

My old employer The Ledbury Reporter reported Mark Thompson, a barrister, saying: “A defendant who gets arrested in Hereford and is held at a police station 100 yards from the court won’t be taken to that court and will go to as far away as Redditch — more than 50 miles.

“The principle of a magistrates’ court is that you will be considered by the community you are offending in and that’s being taken away. People from Redditch have no relevance to people from Ross-on-Wye.”

As he says, lower courts are supposed to be that: local people judging their peers.

Not too long ago each Bench would have been based on one magistrates’ court, all local people and having knowledge of the area.

Over the last 10 years, as Benches have amalgamated to cut costs, that pool has grown bigger and remote. Presumably as well as not knowing the local ne’er do wells, magistrates used to also know each other well, too.

This loss of any personal relationship may be why the House of Commons Justice Committee last week issued a report on the role of the magistracy, which said that low morale was a cause for concern.

It recommended a number of steps, including increasing the diversity of magistrates, who are mostly middle aged and white.

But moving courts to ever-distant centres is itself likely to deter a diverse population of magistrates.

A young woman working in town might have been able to wangle an odd morning off when her local court was three streets away and met every other week, dealing with fairly easy cases — drink-driving, fighting and petty theft, the staple of Upton magistrates.

When courts are 30 or 50 miles away and full-time operations, the only people with the time to be magistrates are going to be retired. Moreover, more centralised courts deal with more complex matters, so added to the pressure of time is a harder workload of more complexity for potential magistrates.

We’re never going to go back to each town having its own court, but the justice is supposed to be dispensed at court — it’s getting to be that actually travelling to the court is a punishment in itself.

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