Magistrates' Courts Are Closing In Communities Across The UK. Is Austerity Harming Our Access To Justice?

Aasma Day

When the doors to Chorley Magistrates’ Court shut for a final time, Lindsay Hoyle says he knew it would have a profound impact on his constituents. 

The Labour MP fears the “penny-wise but pound-foolish” decision will only widen the gulf between the public and those responsible for implementing law and order in the areas they live and work.

“Justice must be served locally. If crime is dealt with in the local court, people know what crimes are being committed in their area and can understand that law and order is being served in their locality,” he tells HuffPost UK

“But once justice is moved away, there is a complete disconnect between the public and law and order.”

Despite his efforts, Chorley Magistrates’ Court has become the latest casualty of an efficiency exercise which has led to the closure of half of all magistrates’ courts in England and Wales since 2010.

A magistrates’ court is a crucial part of the justice system in vast swathes of the UK. They are lower courts which hold trials for summary offences like motoring and minor criminal damage, but almost all criminal cases begin in what is referred to in the legal community as “the mags”. Cases are heard by either two or three magistrates or a district judge, and more serious crimes are then referred to the Crown Court.

Magistrates are volunteers, drawn from the communities they serve. In 2011, then police minister Damian Green said they “are truly the cornerstone of our justice system. Not only that, they are a model of what a good citizen should be. 

“Our summary justice system was founded with the magistracy at the centre. Magistrates have dispensed justice in their local communities for more than 650 years.”

Justice must be served locally. If crime is dealt with in the local court, people know what crimes are being committed in their area and can understand that law and order is being served in their localityLindsay Hoyle MP

The closure of magistrates’ courts across the country is part of nationwide picture of shrinking local budgets and disappearing services in people’s communities. In our series, What It’s Like To Lose, HuffPost UK has been focusing on the disappearing bus routes, leisure centres, clinics and job centres that together paint a picture of what life is like for millions of people who rely on public services in the age of austerity.  

The building that housed Chorley Magistrates Court now lies empty, and all hearings have been transferred to the nearby city of Preston from this month – a decision labelled as “penny-wise but pound-foolish” by Hoyle, who says the deeper repercussions have not been considered.

Hoyle isn’t alone in worrying that the closure of magistrates courts means that the process, and presence, of justice is removed from our communities.

Since 2010, 165 of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed. And with cases moved to cities or towns nearby, that can mean longer journey times for everyone from defendants, victims and witnesses to lawyers and police.

In the case of Chorley Magistrates’ Court, its work is being transferred to Preston, about 11 miles away. But Hoyle argues that given Chorley’s size, and the amount of towns and villages in rural areas nearby, people will have to travel even further than that.

“If people live in villages, they either have to drive into a busy and congested city or use public transport which can be very patchy,” he said.

“The extra workload will also put more pressure on the existing courts which are already full and busy with their own work.”

Chorley Magistrates Court in Lancashire which has now closed

The Chorley Magistrates’ Court building is integrated with the adjacent police station, and Hoyle believes that removing the ability of police to pop in there, give evidence, and go straight back to work, will have a negative impact on resources.

“Now we will have less police time on the streets of Chorley as officers will have to travel further away, sit in traffic and battle parking to go to court.

“This ridiculous and inappropriate closure of a court is a totally ill-thought-out decision which won’t save money in the long run.”

The decision to close Chorley Magistrates’ Court, along with six other magistrates’ sites across the country was made last year, following consultations.

The consultation recognised some court users would have to travel further, but ruled that access to justice would be maintained. As with so many decisions around austerity, the economics made sense on paper, and services can be accessed in nearby places outside of the immediate community.

But Hoyle says there is also a ripple effect in the town from the closure of the court.

 

It is yet another thing being taken away from Chorley town centrePatricia Catterall, local business owner

 

“Once the court began to decline, we saw solicitors practices merging and then leaving the town and the legal area began to shrink. 

“This has a knock-on effect not only on jobs but also on the spend in a town as less people are employed and less people are going into shops which can lead to further job closures.

“It rips the heart out of a town.”

Patricia Catterall and Yvonne Madden at Pat's Market Cheese Shop in Chorley

Traders in Chorley town centre agree. Patricia Catterall, who has run Pat’s Market Cheese Shop for 16 years, told us the closure of the mags court is another blow for local businesses like hers.

″It is yet another thing being taken away from Chorley town centre,” she said. “The more you take away from a town, the less people will be working there and spending their money at other businesses.

“The court has only just closed but I know we will feel the impact as business is tougher and we are not doing as well as we did in previous years.”

Gillian Ferguson, owner of a sandwich shop just a stone’s throw from the building, says they had already noticed a negative impact on business with the gradual whittling down of services from the court over the last few years.

She explains: ”Over the past few years, solicitors’ firms have moved out of the centre of Chorley and we have noticed we have lost customers at lunchtimes.

″It all has a detrimental effect on small businesses and I am disappointed the magistrates’ court has now closed altogether.

“It is only early days but we have already noticed a slight downturn in customers.”

Paul Gobin of Gobin's Family Butchers

Paul Gobin who owns a local family-run butchers says the court closure is another example of things being taken away from smaller communities and centralised. ”I don’t like seeing another empty building – there’s already enough empty buildings in Chorley town centre without emptying another one.” 

People having to travel longer distances to get to their nearest magistrates’ court can have major consequences, particularly if they live in more rural areas poorly served by public transport, says John Bache, national chairman of the Magistrates’ Association.

“If you close a court in one of the big cities, it might just mean an extra stop on the underground or an extra couple of stops on the bus – a nuisance but not impossible.

“But with rural areas, you might have everybody – victims, defendants, magistrates, court staff – having to travel an additional 30 miles in each direction.

“Public transport in rural areas is very sparse and in some areas, there may only be one bus service a day and some people might not have their own transport.”

 

“People don’t realise how important justice is until it affects them personally. Anyone can need justice. You could be a witness to a crime, or a victim or be a defendant accused of a crime you have done, or also of a crime you haven’t doneJohn Bache, Magistrates' Association

 Bache adds that every British citizen has a fundamental right to access to justice.

“People don’t realise how important justice is until it affects them personally. Anyone can need justice. You could be a witness to a crime, or a victim or be a defendant accused of a crime you have done, or also of a crime you haven’t done.

“There needs to be a balance between justice and efficiency. We are certainly not against efficiency. But it must not be at the expense of people being able to access the justice system.” 

Richard Miller from The Law Society says there is an even bigger potential problem with these longer journeys to get to court.

“In areas where there is limited public transport, it could even mean the defendant and victim having to travel on the same bus or train to get to the court case.

“Even if the defendant doesn’t do anything wrong, this can be intimidating or concerning for the victim.”

Miller also told us that people’s journeys being delayed as they have to travel greater distances to attend court could have an impact on costs to the system.

“We have seen increasing examples of defendants not attending court and then having to be arrested and brought to court at a later date.

“This costs the public purse, not only due to the police costs in bringing them to court, but also because the original case did not go ahead.

“If victims or witnesses do not turn up as the court is further away and they experience problems with transport, it could lead to the case being adjourned, delayed or even collapsing altogether.”

‘More Thought Needs To Be Given To Victims’

Jill Walmsley, whose teenage daughter was viciously stabbed 20 times in a knife attack by a stranger in a park and left for dead, says the thought of potentially meeting the accused on the journey to court during a trial is horrifying.

Her 14-year-old daughter suffered a stroke as a result of her injuries.

The attacker was eventually tried at Crown Court and jailed for life, but made his first appearance at a magistrates court.

Walmsley said: ”It is a frightening thought that with the closure of courts and people having to travel further to get there and maybe use limited public transport, they could come face-to-face with the perpetrator on a bus or train.

These decisions should not just be about cost-cutting and saving money – the victim should always come firstJill Walmsley

 “It is harrowing enough seeing the person responsible when you are in court and they are behind a screen as a barrier so to come close to them in such a situation is unthinkable.

“Even if they are not on the same bus or train as the accused, being at same station as them can be frightening.

“More thought needs to be given to victims and making sure they are safe and supported in every case.

“These decisions should not just be about cost-cutting and saving money – the victim should always come first.”

If we are closing courts within our communities, some have argued that technology could be the answer, with online systems and video hearings – but campaigners urge caution.

 Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate and director of national charity Transform Justice, says: “We desperately need to modernise the courts in some ways, for instance to move from paper to digital files and to text people about their court dates.

“But we need to be cautious about closing courts and replacing them with video and online hearings. It’s not clear whether people will be able to cope with doing a court hearing online. We need to do extensive research before everything gets switched over.”

She added that the court system is already bewildering for people and a loss of face-to-face contact will only add to the confusion.

John Bache from the Magistrates Association agrees. “A lot of defendants we deal with don’t have access to a computer, are computer illiterate or simply choose not to use one. But they still deserve justice.”

The large number of court closures is also feared to have a detrimental effect when it comes to recruiting of magistrates – particularly as there is a government drive underway for greater diversity.

Another 8,000 magistrates are needed in England and Wales over the next 10 years just to stay still, according to Bache.

“There is already a shortage of magistrates and it is a real and increasing problem as many existing magistrates are retiring.

“Magistrates are often sitting on a bench of two which shouldn’t be happening in case they have opposing views. Ideally, it should be three all the time.

 

Local justice is vitally important as you need local knowledge and understanding. I think losing that local connection will have a negative impact on communities.”Richard Miller, The Law Society

 “We really want to increase the diversity of magistrates – we want male and female magistrates and younger and more socially diverse magistrates – not just middle class people 

“The problem is, if a court is miles away from other places, you will only attract people living nearby to be magistrates as people know their local area and want to serve it.”

Richard Miller from The Law Society agrees: “It is important that justice is seen to be done. Local justice is vitally important as you need local knowledge and understanding.

“I think losing that local connection will have a negative impact on communities.”

MP Bob Neill, chairman of the justice select committee told HuffPost UK: “We believe these court closures will make it much harder for people to access justice and have expressed our concerns.

“Purely saving money cannot be the sole criteria for this. It is not acceptable for people to travel long distances to access justice.

“We accept there is scope for people to give evidence by video link, but we don’t feel that is the complete answer.

“We are asking the government to be more cautious and pay more attention to access to justice. We will be flagging this up as a matter of concern.”

Critics believe the costs incurred by the closure of magistrates courts have not been fully analysed and fear there is a risk that increases in other costs could outweigh any savings.

In Chorley, it is too late to save the magistrates court. But local MP Lindsay Hoyle is at least hoping to save the location. He has asked for it to be considered as an administrative centre for courts, “so we are not left with another empty and derelict building.” 

WHAT HM COURTS AND TRIBUNALS SERVICE HAD TO SAY

An HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We’re investing £1 billion to modernise the justice system, making it easier to use and providing better value for the taxpayer.

“The ambitious reform programme is led jointly with the judiciary and improving access to justice is one of its core principles.

“The benefits are already being felt, with 150,000 people using online justice services last year with high satisfaction rates.

“To date, courts that have closed have either been underused, dilapidated or too close to another court. The decision to close a court is not taken lightly and only happens where there is access to a reasonable alternative and after the public have been consulted.”

The HM Courts and Tribunals Service revealed that the Chorley Magistrates Court building was underused and in the 2017/18 financial year, it sat 1,374 hours out of a possible 3,750 available hours.

It believes by relocating the work of Chorley Magistrates’ Court to Preston, there is an opportunity to reduce operating costs and re-invest that money in the remaining court estate.

They say the reforms will provide multichannel services and that paper forms, in-person hearings and telephone support will remain part of the service offered and extra assistance will be made available for those who need help using digital systems.

Video hearings are being piloted in a small number of cases and are being carefully evaluated. It is at a judge’s discretion whether a case is suitable for a fully-video hearing. 

What It's Like To Lose