HC Deb 23 June 1997 vol 296 cc617-8
29. Mr. Hinchliffe

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what steps he has taken to ensure the availability of courts close to local communities. [3114]

Mr. Hoon

Magistrates courts are locally managed by magistrates courts committees under the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Decisions concerning the future and number of magistrates courts in each area are for the relevant committee to take. A local authority that contributes financially may appeal to the Lord Chancellor against a proposed closure; the procedure for such appeals is set out in section 56 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. In the absence of an appeal, however, the Lord Chancellor plays no part in the process.

On the civil and higher criminal courts, the court service must constantly monitor and review the viability of its resources in the light of changing business needs and work load trends. Decisions on any proposals for change will be made by the Lord Chancellor, taking account of all the relevant factors.

Mr. Hinchliffe

In developing a new approach in his Department, will my hon. Friend consider the implications of Crown court closures in areas such as Huddersfield and Wakefield for court users, the local police and the legal profession? Will he consider proposals in West Yorkshire for amalgamation of the magistrates courts committees, because of the concern that that could lead to magistrates becoming even more remote from the communities that they serve?


I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions, but it is clear that each decision must be taken on its merits. Much will depend on the grounds of any appeal that is lodged, although there are clearly several themes that are common to all appeals: accessibility, of which my hon. Friend rightly emphasised the importance; the provision of modern facilities, such as facilities for the disabled; security arrangements for violent offenders; and separate waiting areas for defendants and witnesses. In addition, the Government are particularly concerned to reduce delays. It is important that we have courtrooms best suited to enable cases to be listed in a way that helps to achieve our aim of reducing delays in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, if the courts are to be useful to the local community, it is important that the court offices are kept open. In that context, he knows that there is a proposal to close the Sleaford court office. If that decision is finalised and there is then an appeal to the Lord Chancellor's office, I hope that the Minister can confirm that that appeal will be given serious and sympathetic consideration.

Mr. Hoon

Of course it will be.

Mr. Mackinlay

Will the Minister look into the case of Essex magistrates courts committee, which is embarking on a review of its courts? Essex Members have not yet been formally consulted. I hope that he agrees that we should be. Will he consider the arbitrary decision, without notice, to move the offices of Thurrock court to Basildon? Many people in Thurrock fear that that heralds a merger of the administration of the courts and of the courts themselves, which would then be based in Basildon. That would be unacceptable to the people of Thurrock.

Mr. Hoon

I emphasise, in relation to all these questions, that these are local decisions, taken locally and subject only to the rights of appeal prescribed in law. For example, magistrates courthouses are not Crown property but owned or leased by the paying local authority on behalf of the local committee. Only when there is an appeal against the decision of a magistrates court committee by a paying authority does the Lord Chancellor have any power to intervene.

Mr. Bob Russell

Does the Minister agree that the whole process has more to do with economics and saving money than with the distribution of justice? Does he agree that, particularly from an Essex perspective, the centralisation of courts, magistrates and witnesses means that local magistrates rarely make decisions on local cases? Is not that bad for local justice?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that the process is solely to do with economics. Economics is clearly an important factor in the decisions, but, as I said, we are also anxious to ensure that we have modern facilities. It is vital that we have up-to-date courts that can provide the range of facilities that are expected in the last part of the 20th century. Equally, I said that the Government are particularly concerned about delay. We must have court complexes that allow us to list cases in a way that best deals with the considerable problem of delay, especially in the magistrates courts.

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