HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc598-9
22. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

What plans the Department has to support small magistrates courts in rural areas. [187659]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Section 30 of the Courts Act 2003 places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the need for accessible courthouses for all people in each local justice area, whether rural or urban. As such, my Department has supported local magistrates courts committees as they enhance their facilities, with funding of almost £400 million in this financial year.

Mr. Bellingham

I am pleased to hear that, but is the Minister aware that until recently, every small Norfolk town, and a number of villages, had their own magistrates courts? Many of those have now closed—under both Governments, to be fair—and justice has been removed from the local communities. Is he aware that morale among magistrates has now fallen substantially, and what will he do to try to reverse the situation?

Mr. Leslie

Since 1997, the Government have opened 18 new magistrates courts. We have given to the hon. Gentleman's magistrates courts committee in Norfolk an extra £1 million to support local magistrates courts services. There is a balance to be struck in making sure that there is good, strong, efficient administration of justice and that everybody has the opportunity to have good access. We will continue to strike that balance.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop)

I declare an interest as a member of the Magistrates Association. Is the Minister happy that in counties such as Leicestershire, where the magistrates courts committee has just held its last ever meeting, the interests of rural courthouses will be protected, because decisions about their future will now be taken by civil servants and others with much less local input? Are we to be confident that the future of courthouses such as that in Coalville in north-west Leicestershire is assured for the medium term?

Mr. Leslie

The new courts boards, which will open as a unified administration, comes on stream in April and will, for the first time, help to ensure that there is a strong local voice, as local representatives go on those boards to scrutinise and investigate area directors' plans for magistrates, county and Crown courts facilities in an area, and not just to consider magistrates' facilities. That is the best way forward.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

Will the Minister also consider in particular the implications of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in relation to the supply of court services? I am pleased to see him nodding. I have a constituent who has a severe latex allergy and who is unable to attend court in normal circumstances because of her inability to go anywhere near rubber substances. That is a difficulty, whether in a rural or urban setting. Equally, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that there are obligations on the Court Service under the Act that comes into force in respect of premises next month. Will he confirm to the House that he will take that issue seriously in general?

Mr. Leslie

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the Government take seriously the disability discrimination obligations on us. We have quite an old stock of court estates, some of which are fine listed buildings, which we would like to continue to use. We must also recognise, however, that a modern Court Service, focusing on justice for all the community, must make sure that everyone can get in and out of the building and use the facilities. Certainly, I will consider any individual cases that he draws to my attention.