It was a big day for AJ when he turned up at Blackpool magistrates court earlier this month. The 36-year-old was found guilty last month of harassing a young woman, and was returning to court to be sentenced. Prison was possible, so the stakes were high, particularly for someone with autism, agoraphobia and anxiety.
Getting there from his home in Morecambe was no mean feat without a car: a 40-mile journey involving three trains or two buses, taking up to two and a half hours. He made it, only to find a note on the door saying the court was closed because of Raac – the crumbly kind of concrete that shut schools across the UK in September.
He was not the only defendant in Lancashire to turn up at the wrong court this month after the Raac-related closure not only of Blackpool but also Preston magistrates court.
“It’s happening all the time,” said one lawyer. “Many clients have their phones confiscated on arrest, so it’s difficult to let them know what has changed – assuming we have been told, which often isn’t the case. Some are homeless, so can’t receive letters. Most are on benefits so will have borrowed money to get to their nearest court, let alone another one miles away.”
Six of the 360 courts in England and Wales are shut because of Raac, which stands for reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. No one, including the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), has any idea when they may open again, but their closure has exposed the fragility of the criminal justice system after more than a decade of cuts.
In 2010, when the Conservative-led coalition came into power and decided to halve the number of magistrates courts, Lancashire had nine. In 2023, it has five – one of which, Lancaster, sits for only a few days a month.
With the two busiest Lancashire courts now shut, the pressure is on Burnley and Blackburn, which are struggling to accommodate all of the county’s cases in a system already “stripped to the bone”, in the words of one legal aid lawyer with 30 years’ experience.
To get a sense of the issues, the Guardian spent a day sitting in court one at Blackburn’s Grade II-listed magistrates court. A splendid room 10 metres tall, it retains its original panelled oak furnishings and fittings, chandeliers and stained glass windows: one reads Mercy, and faces the bench where the district judge or magistrates sit; another, reading Justice, faces the bulletproof glass box housing the dock.
It was sitting as Blackpool magistrates court, taking all of the remand cases from the Lancashire seaside. More than 20 people had been arrested and charged in Blackpool overnight, and all had been transported 27 miles east to Blackburn for their first appearances.
All human life was represented – the female paedophile who had joined a family meal at Nando’s and broken the terms of her licence; a chef who had waved a knife around Blackpool prom during a mental health episode; a 25-year-old accused of assaulting his parents, who sobbed as his solicitor explained he had broken the terms of his bail to go and see his mother after his cousin killed himself.
Court two was hearing all of the Preston remand cases, while the Blackburn remands had been transferred 15 miles away to Burnley. No wonder there was bewilderment among everyone in the crowded waiting area.
Everything was running late. At 3.30pm Shaun Finnigan, the Preston duty solicitor, had still not met two of his clients. “They don’t have enough cells downstairs and so they are bringing the remand cases to court in shifts,” he said.
It was gone 5pm when AJ’s sentencing was finally called. Jane Goodwin, the patient district judge, accepted that he did not know he was supposed to be in Blackburn, and granted his request to be sentenced in much nearer Lancaster next time.
Even without Raac, the courts are not efficient places, despite the best efforts of dwindling numbers of staff. One Blackpool case involving a 44-year-old Albanian accused of cultivating 249 cannabis plants was called off for the fourth time when an interpreter failed to show up.
A 16-year-old girl arrested at 1.30am on suspicion of assault had her case adjourned when the judge and prosecutors realised her record had been mixed up with someone else’s. A 17-year-old boy cried as the district judge remanded him into the custody of Blackpool council – only for the council to point out that his 18th birthday was just days away and their responsibility for him would finish then.
The Law Society president, Nick Emmerson, said Raac-related closures “only compound the unacceptable delays faced by victims and defendants”.
They are just the latest gusts in a perfect storm that has left magistrates courts – the unsung workhorses of the criminal justice system, receiving more than a million cases each year – close to breaking point after years of austerity.
A particular problem is what Emmerson calls the “exodus” of legal advisers, trained lawyers or barristers who advise lay magistrates on matters of law. They – along with poorly paid defence solicitors – are leaving “en masse” for better-paid jobs at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is on a recruitment drive to speed up charging decisions, said one lawyer. “So you have one government body using public money to poach staff from another public body. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Blackburn and Preston have each lost at least half of their legal advisers to the CPS in 2023, the Guardian understands.
Problems are even more acute farther south, according to Mark Beattie, the chair of the Magistrates Association: “There is a shortage of legal advisers across the country, which reduces court capacity, especially in London, south-east and south-west England.”
The MoJ said it had recently recruited five new legal advisers for Lancashire, who would be “embedded” in the coming months, but the current situation means not all available magistrates can sit.
As a result, trials are now being set for November or December 2024, even for simple common assault cases that would take no more than a few hours of court time. “Previously, a delay of six months would be considered outrageous,” said one defence solicitor practising since 1989. “It’s terrible for victims, witnesses and defendants. I feel very sorry for them.”
A spokesperson for His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said: “Raac remains rare across the court estate, with only 10 sites out of a total 350 having been identified as currently containing this material.
“While we have temporarily closed six sites, the remaining buildings have been deemed safe by professionals and continue to operate as normal. Cases impacted by closures are being heard virtually or at other nearby sites to minimise disruption.”