HC Deb 07 November 1991 vol 198 cc565-6
11. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has any plans to close or amalgamate rural magistrates courts in England and Wales during the next 12 months.

Mr. John Patten

No, Sir. Proposals for the closure of magistrates courthouses or the amalgamation of petty sessional divisions are the responsibility of magistrates courts committees after consulting those concerned.

Mr. Jones

What guidelines does the Home Department give to magistrates courts committees on how they should approach the closure and amalgamation of rural magistrates courts? I am sure that the Minister will be aware—representing a rural area, as I also do—that there is considerable concern about closures and amalgamations that lead to both defendants and witnesses having to travel vast distances. Does he agree that access to justice is more important than administrative convenience?

Mr. Patten

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is an extremely important point, and access to justice in rural areas is, indeed, subject to guidance from the Home Office. Let me add that, in taking recent decisions concerning rural areas, the Home Office has almost invariably supported those who have felt that rural courthouses should be kept open. I have looked up my own record over the past six months, and I find that the only courthouse whose closure I approved was in Leicestershire and was precisely 500 yd from a new courthouse costing £8 million which we had erected to take its place.

Mr. Bellingham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if justice is to be seen to be done, it is far better for it to be dispensed closer to the community in which the crime took place? Will he join me in saluting the work done by some of the small magistrates courts in west Norfolk, such as those in Hunstanton and Fakenham, and does he agree that every effort should be made to ensure that they stay open?

Mr. Patten

It is extremely important that small rural benches—provided that they are large enough to provide the necessary range of skills and an adequate number of people to dispense rural justice—are kept. But it is also the case that suggestions for amalgamation of rural—or, indeed, urban—benches come not from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary but from the magistrates courts committees in the areas concerned.

Mr. Randall

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition approve in principle of measures to enhance the cost effectiveness of our magistrates courts system? Is he also aware, however, that the Government's policy of strict cash limits can in some cases be seen as a blunt instrument whose use could result in closures of courts in many local communities? Will the Minister now tell the House how many local magistrates courts he estimates are likely to close as a result of the Government's new funding policy? Or has he not bothered to work it out?

Mr. Patten

The Government's new funding policy—which was supported by the Labour party during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, so the hon. Gentleman cannot complain about that—is aimed at ensuring that the workload is taken into account in allocating resources while encouraging the management of magistrates courts to improve the efficiency of local justice so that it is better carried out. Suggestions for closures and amalgamations come from the individual magistrates courts committees in the areas in question.

Sir Anthony Grant

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am extremely grateful to him for the wise decision to retain the St. Neots and Huntingdon courthouses? Is he also aware that there has been considerable disquiet over the proposed amalgamation of the St. Neots and Huntingdon bench? Will he carefully consider the representations that I have sent to him on that subject?

Mr. Patten

I am glad that my hon. Friend believes that I took a wise decision over those courthouse closures and they remain open. I will of course carefully consider any correspondence that my hon. Friend has sent to me.