HC Deb 08 December 1998 vol 322 cc139-40
29. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

What steps he is taking to improve the local delivery and administration of justice. [61252]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

On the criminal side, our plans for developing the local delivery and administration of the magistrates courts service were announced in statements to both Houses on 29 October 1997. As a result, smaller magistrates courts committees are amalgamating, leading to an increase in administrative efficiency for the areas involved. On the civil side, the Court Service is responsible for ensuring an appropriate balance between the delivery of local justice and obtaining value for taxpayers' money. The Access to Justice Bill, which was introduced on 2 December, will continue our programme of reform.

Mr. Sheerman

My hon. Friend will know that I approve of, and congratulate him on, many of the things that the Department is doing. However, on local justice locally delivered, many of my constituents and many magistrates are concerned that the rationalisation that is still continuing apace in magistrates courts is very similar to that carried out under a previous Administration. The proximity of courts to everyday life and work is important, especially for people from impoverished backgrounds—those people who suffer from social exclusion—so that they can be in their community and get to court easily. Therefore, will my hon. Friend have a word with some of his civil servants? The proposal may look good on the map and may be good for rationalisation and efficiency as regards the taxpayer, but surely local justice should still be locally delivered.

Mr. Hoon

I do not disagree with the principles that my hon. Friend has set out. However, responsibility for local magistrates courts is in the hands of local magistrates courts committees. They decide whether courts should remain open or closed in the first place and it is only when there is an appeal against a decision that the Department becomes involved. Hon. Members who are concerned about the local delivery of justice should use their influence, as I hope that my hon. Friend will, on local magistrates courts committees to ensure that, where appropriate, courts remain open.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May I ask the Minister to consider the importance of the county courts as part of the local community as well as part of the delivery of local justice? In particular, will he examine the proposals, which I understand are at an early stage, to close Altrincham, Tameside and Leigh county courts? That would be a retrograde step in the local delivery of justice and I hope that he will take a close look at it.

Mr. Hoon

I have visited Altrincham county court—in a wholly representative capacity, might I say. I was impressed by the service that it provided to the local community. It is crucial that the local court service can balance the interests of the taxpayer and the cost of county courts against the importance of the local delivery of justice. Most people who visit county courts go there for information; they do not necessarily go there to attend court. There are many ways in which information can be delivered using the benefits of modern technology other than through making available a courthouse facility. I hope that information technology will improve access to information, rather than leaving us dependent on expensive court buildings to deliver the service.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Minister knows that I have been concerned for some time about the closure of magistrates courts in my constituency. I have seen him at least once on the subject, but he did not assist me much in terms of access to local justice then. It is not only the public—front-line access to justice—who are suffering; justices of the peace in north Wales have told me, fatalistically, that before long their lives will be so miserable that stipendiaries will come in and the whole system of local justice will go.

Mr. Hoon

I simply do not accept that. As I said, the administration of local justice and the magistrates courts is in the hands of local magistrates courts committees. That is the same in north Wales as in other parts of England and Wales. It will remain in their hands because that is the best way to guarantee the local delivery of justice.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I am sure that the Minister agrees that, for local people to have confidence in their justice system, it is crucial that magistrates benches be properly representative of the communities that they serve. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Salford. Take three inner-city areas: in Ordsall we have no magistrates; in Langworthy and Seedley we have but one; and in Kersal we have a grand total of five. Such areas suffer the bulk of crime and disorder in our city. Will the Minister reassure me that steps are being taken to increase the number of inner-city representatives on our magistrates benches so that the communities that suffer crime are represented at the heart of the justice system?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, although she will know that appointments in the Duchy of Lancaster are the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Nevertheless, the Lord Chancellor has asked the Central Office of Information to devise a national press campaign to help identify ways of attracting groups who are under-represented on the bench. The Lord Chancellor's Department and the Magistrates Association have worked together to produce a guide for employers explaining the benefits to their companies of having magistrates in the work force. I sincerely hope that the appointments system will benefit from that approach.