HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc735-7
38. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

When he next expects to meet members of the lay magistracy to discuss the administration of justice in rural areas. [65335]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper)

Magistrates courts committees are expected to recognise the needs of rural users in the delivery of their services, as set out in the rural White Paper. Officials and I continue to have meetings with various representatives of the lay magistracy. Although there are no particular plans to discuss rural issues, I am, of course, happy to do so, should concerns be raised.

Mr. Bellingham

Is the Minister aware that Tony Martin is a constituent of mine? Is she also aware that the lay magistracy was obviously closely involved in the case during the early stages? Is she aware that one of the burglars who broke into Tony Martin's house is suing him for damages that he suffered as a result of his criminality, and that in spite of his law firm offering a contingency no win-no fee basis, he is getting legal aid to take the case to court? Should not the rules be changed so that a person cannot get legal aid when a solicitor works on a contingency no win-no fee basis?

Yvette Cooper

The rules on legal aid have been clearly established to ensure that they provide for those who do not have the means to take their cases through court. Those principles are important and we must respect them. It would not be right for Ministers to take decisions on individual cases of allocation of legal aid. It is right that we have proper criteria for such decisions to be made, and we should respect those.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

As a member of the Magistrates Association and of the supplemental list of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Bench in Leicestershire, I can tell the Minister that conversations with colleagues suggest a deep unease about the medium-term future of rural magistrates courts in the light of various pronouncements by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office. Can she give them some reassurance that the continuing loss of power and the pressure for more remote and large-scale centralised courthouses will be stopped in their tracks, and that there is indeed a future for the rural courthouse, which does not seem clear at present? Are my colleagues right to be pessimistic?

Yvette Cooper

It is important that decisions about courthouses and the provision of services at the local level be taken as far as possible at the local level, by the people who have the experience and the knowledge of local circumstances. That should continue. It is part of the current system that it is a matter for magistrates courts committees in the first instance to make decisions about court venues and where services should be provided. We need to retain such local decision making. It is also important that rural decisions are taken into account. We have reflected on the proposals in the rural White Paper and magistrates courts committees are expected to use the rural proofing check list set out by the Countryside Agency.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Minister's support for the concept of local justice in rural areas is widely welcomed, but local courts are closing on an almost weekly and monthly basis, not least in my own town, Frome. There are proposals to close the court in Frome, which means that people will have to travel anything up to 30 or 35 miles to their nearest local court. The usual response from the Lord Chancellor's Department is that this is purely a matter for local magistrates courts committees, but I do not believe that every magistrates courts committee in the country is engaged in a conspiracy to close local rural courthouses. Will the Minister give new guidance to magistrates courts committees to make sure that we have local courthouses providing a service to local rural communities?

Yvette Cooper

Magistrates courts committees have been given clear guidance, particularly about the need to take account of the requirements of rural areas. It is the magistrates courts committees' responsibility to decide on the use of courthouses for magistrates services in their area. It is important that those decisions should be taken at the local level. We should consider what further partnership arrangements can be put in place to ensure better working between, for example, magistrates courts, the civil and family courts and the Crown court to promote access to justice in the local area.

For example, the proposals on the civil and family courts will involve the opening of 37 new venues in areas that do not currently have civil and family court services, such as Selby in North Yorkshire and the Isles of Scilly. That means an increase in access for people in those areas. We take that very seriously in the Department.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The Parliamentary Secretary mentioned civil courts. Will she tell my constituents whether she would be prepared to travel 80 miles to discuss her civil court case?

Yvette Cooper

Obviously, I do not know the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Certainly, the proposals that have been set out as part of the civil and family courts modernisation programme are intended to increase the number of local hearings that are taking place. It is important that we do that, but we must also recognise that the decisions that are taken must take into account a series of other issues, including, for example, the need to ensure the availability of appropriate facilities and access for disabled users. I am very happy to look into the individual case that he mentioned, but I think that the record of the Government's recent proposals shows that they have been about increasing access to civil and family hearings, rather than the reverse.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Does the Minister accept that her trying to sound reasonable does not necessarily mean that she is being reasonable in putting across her arguments? Does she agree that there is increasing evidence that the 28,000 unpaid members of the lay magistracy, including many in rural areas, are in a deepening crisis and are getting angry? There is a vast number of unpaid fines and court closures and mergers are on the agenda, rather than the meting out of justice. As one resigning JP said yesterday in the press: I am going because I am disillusioned with the system…I have been presiding over the collection of debts like a car park attendant. With crime shooting up and criminals getting away scot free in magistrates courts, what does the Minister propose to do about that?

Yvette Cooper

I do not agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. Lay magistrates play a vital role in the justice process in this country and are an extremely valued part of that process. There are indeed wide variations in issues such as fine enforcement that need to be addressed and we will shortly set out measures to take that further.

I warn the hon. Gentleman against trying to make party political points about issues such as court closures. In 1996, the last year of the previous Administration, 20 magistrates courts closed and many of them were situated in rural areas. Courts were closed in places such as Llangollen, Thirsk, Ingleton, Easingwold, Howden, Market Weighton and so on; we could go on. These are important issues that need to be decided locally, but I warn him against trying to make inappropriate party political points about the matter.