HL Deb 03 December 2001 vol 629 cc652-69

7.40 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the policy, procedures and responsibilities in relation to closure of magistrates' courts in England and Wales and the effect of such closures on local justice and on the communities which the courts serve.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have only one short hour in which to debate the matter of court closures. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part in the debate, as well as to many other noble Lords who have told me that they would have wished to make a contribution.

In discussing the closure of magistrates' courts, one is to a real degree considering the future of lay Justices of the Peace. From time immemorial, JPs have been the bulwark and personification of local justice in this country.

This debate is not a trip down memory lane, nor is it my intention to deny the past need for considerable court rationalisation. However, in many parts of the country today, the process has gone too far and has been captured by distorted priorities.

As we speak, some 435 magistrates' courts are still functioning in England and Wales, presided over by 30,500 Justices of the Peace, along with around 100 full-time stipendiaries, or district judges.

Magistrates' courts are closing at the rate of 5 per cent per year. At present, closures are contemplated in Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Surrey, Durham, Yorkshire, Thames Valley, Manchester, Mercia, the Midlands, Cornwall, Dorset and Greater London, as well as others. Tellingly, information on court closures prior to September 1995 is not available from the Lord Chancellor's Department or anywhere else.

A year ago, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food published their blueprint for the future of the countryside which recognised that, Market towns … [must be] the focus of a range of private and public services to which people need access". They introduced what was called a "market town template", specifying the key facilities which towns of 10,000 to 25,000 inhabitants needed in order to satisfy public requirements. Among those is the presence of a magistrates' court. Yet, as we know, the vast majority of our towns are now without a court. Indeed, over the past three years, courts have closed in a whole range of market towns such as Ripon, Stowmarket, March, Lichfield, Windermere, Exmouth, Tiverton and Worcester, as well as over 45 others.

I was fortunate to be able to attend and speak at the annual meeting of the Chairmen of Magistrates' Benches held last September in Nottingham. I picked up a strong sense of quiet anger and discontent. I was told about the record resignations from many Benches and the difficulty of persuading people of the highest calibre to come on to the Bench. In sum, JPs feel simultaneously that they are the Cinderellas of the judicial system and its packhorses, handling as they do over 90 per cent of all criminal cases, together with a great many civil ones.

In her response the Minister may be tempted to repeat what was said by the Lord Chancellor in answer to a Question I put to him last month. He stated that: Decisions concerning the number, location and future of magistrates' courts are for each magistrates' court committee to determine, in consultation with its local paying authority or authorities".—[Official Report, 12/11/01; col. WA51] None the less, the fact remains that the purse strings for over 80 per cent of the funding are controlled from Whitehall and that a manipulation of capital grants and revenue funding stands behind the policy in favour of centralised court complexes. As Lord Justice Auld concluded in his recent report, the reality of court closures is that they are, driven by the Lord Chancellor's Department". Typically, under such financial threats, MCCs have engaged in what is too often biased and partial consultation designed to reach the only conclusion apparently on offer from Whitehall. It is not by any means unknown that even where every person consulted rejects closure, it goes ahead nonetheless.

Often MCCs make no attempt to estimate the cost to the public—witnesses, families, the accused, applicants for licences and so forth—of getting to the nearest alternative court when one has closed. Furthermore, the so-called internal savings are often of relatively modest amounts. For example, in Haverhill, a town of 25,000 people, the savings made were under £12,000, while at Gillingham, in Dorset, where prospective closure is afoot, savings of around £6,400 are expected. That sum does not take into account any of the external public costs.

Another device used—I am tempted to call it—to terrify MCCs into doing central government bidding is the need, as it is now put, to become compliant with the Human Rights Act. The notion, for example, that a breach of Articles 3 or 8 contained in the Human Rights Act will be incurred if a prisoner has to be taken handcuffed through a public area on his way into court stretches my credulity at least.

A further argument for closure is that courts are being used for only a small percentage of the time. But if in fact the real costs of keeping open a part-time court are modest, while the overall costs—including costs to the public—are greater, then the bare financial case falls. I would argue that the policy in favour of mixed-use buildings should be one that is encouraged rather than, as is the case, discouraged. One can cite many examples, in particular in the past.

Today I mention Dorchester Magistrates' Court, which functions extremely well in County Hall in rooms used for many different purposes. Whitehall decries such flexibility. But I repeat, is it not rather a nonsense to close a court for its failure, for example, to provide perfect disabled access, regardless of the fact that such a closure will result in those few disabled people who might have been moderately inconvenienced at the court having to travel many miles at great cost and difficulty, confronted by often non-existent public transport, to reach the alternative court? Incidentally, no account is taken of the increasing rates of lateness and non-appearance of both the accused and witnesses as a result of court closures.

Along with court closures disappears the local knowledge gathered by justices of the peace of the geography, sociology and concerns of their patch. Furthermore, local newspapers understandably will not send reporters out of their area to cover proceedings at centralised courts. The effect of that is a major loss of local case reporting. But local reportage fulfils two important functions: first, it acts as a real constraint on misbehaviour—publicity of one's wrongdoings in one's own backyard is a powerful deterrent; and, secondly, that of public education. That, too, is crucially important. A third function is that local magistrates were known locally and, in going about their daily round, personified the law.

A further side-effect of the closure of local courts is that JPs lose the cohesion and knowledge of each other enjoyed on a smaller Bench. It is not surprising that morale tends to diminish when magistrates find themselves subsumed into large, or sometimes huge, Benches. They feel cut off from local contact. Central administration then exerts tighter controls and direction on the lives of JPs. If one looks at the strategic review, for example, of the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority, a great deal of resentment has been recorded as regards the overbearing nature of the administrative and managerial overview. One is left with the sense that in some places the tail is wagging the dog.

The anonymisation of justice inherent in the large court option has the drawback that JPs themselves cease to be effective ambassadors for justice in areas now too big for them to enjoy any presence. As a result of the loss of a sense among local people that they own their local courts, the sense of justice administered by the people, of the people and for the people, is also lost. We also see a decline in esteem which can and usually does follow the loss of small courts in which the JPs would have been known and respected. That esteem not only adds to the satisfaction that they may draw from devoting so much time and effort to the public service, but encourages others to offer themselves for the Bench.

The 18 policy action teams established by the Prime Minister when he came to power in 1997 have coalesced around a single insight, which was given in PAT 10—namely, that self-help is the sine qua non to community revival. To re-engage the public in their own affairs; to recreate loyalties to local and national institutions; to help citizens to recover a sense of their own citizenship and of their real significance in that role; to revive the notion that everyone has something to contribute; and to recover community morale—all of these objectives are more or less dependent upon the restoration of civic pride and autonomy. That is why the Government's market town template is right in identifying the crucial importance of local magistrates' courts. The Government now need to make sure that "rural proofing", as they call it, starts to bite—because it certainly has not yet.

I have said nothing about city court closures. Contemplate, for example, Bolton, a city of 267,000, which is about to lose its magistrates court if the plans go ahead. Or Salford, with a population of 225,000, which is in a similar predicament. Consider the situation in Yorkshire, where a whole swathe of courts throughout the county are in danger of closing.

Whatever else, I hope that the Government will agree with what Lord Chief Justice Bingham, as he then was, said in 1999. He praised lay justices as, a democratic jewel beyond price". In focusing on local justice he said that lay Justices of the Peace are, alert to the needs and concerns of the communities they serve, enabling local issues to be determined locally by local people". I hope that the Government will share that vision.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for raising this issue. We are indebted also to Gillian Tindall, herself a former magistrate, who has studied the history of magistrates over the past 200 years. She has concluded that local justice is a good thing and has been substantially improved. Today, local justices are well trained, drawn from the diverse groups which make up multi-cultural Britain, and are seldom corrupt—perhaps because of stringent selection by those whose impartiality has been proved beyond reproach.

But some principles over the centuries remain immutable. The idea of access to local justice is one. That means victims, witnesses, defendants and civil applicants being able to appear before tribunals with local knowledge and, above all, in courts which are both within reasonable travelling distance and where transport is readily available.

Those who practise in our courts know all too well of the delays which frequently occur, often necessitating a number of hearings in the same case. Many defendants are on social security; more are inadequate; and we have also difficult young people. There is a strong feeling in the judicial and social work fields that the increased number of warrants for nonattendance will, in the long term, result in an undermining of law and order, as many minor prosecutions are likely to be discontinued through sheer inability to execute those warrants.

A local court—and, indeed, a police station—serves, psychologically, to remind those inclined to criminal behaviour of the end game. It also offers a reassuring presence to the law-abiding public.

There are other causes for concern which have been well rehearsed by the Magistrates' Association. It fears that administrative expediency will be put before the administration of justice, and that there is a danger that budgetary considerations will take precedence.

It is vital, too, that the new justices' chief executives, who will be the administrative controllers for a magistrates' court committee, should be excluded from judicial functions—such as holding clerkships—and from any involvement in the recruitment, selection, appointment or training of lay justices. The judiciary and its legal advisers must be seen to be serving only society at large. There must be sufficient justices' clerks to support the magistracy. Fewer than 200 for more than 30,000 magistrates is totally unacceptable.

Lay justices deal with a fair spread of judicial work. Of course professional district judges will be needed in busy courthouses, but where the volume of work reduces, consideration should be given to transferring a district judge.

In general, lay magistrates have done well. There should be no risk of their being undermined. We have reason to be proud of the unique quality of the judicial system we have developed and we should strive to preserve it.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Stewartby

My Lords, I. too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for introducing the debate. I should like to offer a few words in support of what he said because this is indeed a critical subject.

I have never participated in the affairs of magistrates' courts in any capacity, but my wife recently retired as deputy chairman of an inner London court after nearly 20 years. Through her, I have inevitably had contact with many justices in recent times.

Magistrates do invaluable work. The network of courts in which they work is essential to maintaining those legal processes which are so much a part of many local communities—although, unfortunately, there are fewer now than a few years ago.

Whether or not they are justified, many lay magistrates tend to feel that the Government have rather got it in for them. That is a most unfortunate impression. Being a justice these days is very hard work; there is much more training involved; and it is more difficult to combine the work with another job. But people give freely of their time and experience and it is an institution which we damage at our peril.

I wish to mention only one example of how closures can cause practical problems. Closure inevitably means that many people will have to travel to more distance courts, as has been mentioned already. The problem of travel is a very real one and cuts right across the whole concept of the provision of local justice.

This can be illustrated by our experience with the specialist courts. In London these courts are designated to deal with particular offences—for example, with vehicle excise issues, with lorry bans and so on; and the means courts. which deal with fines. Practical experience has demonstrated that they create considerable travel problems, not only for defendants but for their families, those supporting them, witnesses and solicitors. It is a trend which is clearly much greater outside urban areas where distances are much longer.

I do not speak from any specialist knowledge, but I feel sufficiently strongly about the issue to offer support to the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. I hope that the Government will take heed and recognise the support for it in all parts of your Lordships' House.

8 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for raising this topic and for giving us the opportunity of speaking on it. It is a matter of great importance, however brief the time allotted for the debate.

Perhaps I may begin by declaring an interest as a magistrate who is now on the supplementary list, after over 20 years on the active list. It is dangerous to claim records in this House; however, I believe that I may possibly be the only Member of the House who has actually presided over the closure of a court and the subsequent amalgamation of two courts, as chairman of the parent Bench. So I can assure the House that the process is a painful and emotional one, producing many problems. With good will, however, and sensitivity— I emphasise that word—these can be overcome, as we happily discovered.

In my county of Hampshire there were some 17 courts 15 years ago, as against 10 today. I stress that those are approximate figures. I do not believe that the delivery of local justice has suffered as a result of the slimming down. Indeed, in some respects it has been enhanced. For example, the savings achieved have enabled the remaining courts to improve their facilities for clients.

I hasten to admit to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that in comparison with, say, Suffolk or Mid-Wales, Hampshire is blessed with a relatively good transport system and courts that are more or less evenly spaced geographically throughout the county. Given these conditions, it has been appropriate to rationalise and modernise. Some courts, representing a more gracious age, simply did not justify their continued existence by any measurable assessment. In my view, local justice does not—cannot—mean a local court in every large centre. It must, on the other hand, mean justice dispensed by local justices, who provide the local expertise arid knowledge which are surely the lynchpins of a system of which we are rightly proud.

Some rationalisation is valid. In the law, as in every other area, you simply not put your head in the sand indefinitely. However, there must come a time when enough is enough. In large rural areas which have been sorely wounded in other ways by so-called rationalisation, and where each closure of a village school or a branch line puts the knife in deeper, there must be a powerful case for the retention of some courts as a social commitment to the community.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has set court utilisation targets. I believe that the basis is 75 per cent use of available time. I fully understand the need for that; but why cannot we go a stage further, certainly so far as establishment use is concerned? Think how many of our larger centres have not one court in them, but three—Crown, magistrates' and county. Is there no way in which spare capacity in any one of them cannot be utilised for the benefit of another—a possibility hinted at by Lord Justice Auld in his report? Without pre-judging the Government's response to the Auld report, due some time in the spring, I should be grateful if the Minister could give at least an indication of the Government's active sympathy in this regard.

Perhaps I may remind the House that it is the Magistrates' Courts Committee which, after due process—that is very important—closes a court. We all know that there are strings behind the committee, but it is not technically done by either the Lord Chancellor's Department or the Government. What members of the committee will have at the forefront of their minds is not just the question of money but the interests of the court's clients. Are the delays unacceptably long, and is justice thereby denied—to say nothing about the distress to witnesses, relatives and friends as a result? Is court security adequate? How good are the communication systems, such as video equipment for off-site interviews? How acceptable are the facilities for witnesses and attendees? And there are many other considerations, some not even affecting the court directly—for example, the logistics of presenting prisoners for a court hearing on the due date to a multiplicity of courts over a wide area.

The comfortable and assured days of Victorian England, during which the Bench reached its apogee, are no longer with us. The inexorable rise in crime, taken in conjunction with the rise of a highly mobile, instead of a largely static, population, and the increased use of information technology and modern communications systems mean that it is inevitable that magistrates' courts, like every other court, should wherever possible be responsive to modern need. We must, however, never sacrifice the concept of local justice—that is, justice administered by local justices who live among the people and who are aware of the diversity and nuances of English and Welsh local communities. Where closure threatens the social cohesion of these communities, we must surely, if we wish to retain the system, call a halt. After all, it is not unreasonable to assume, after such a long period of navel-gazing, that we have at last got it more or less right. I ask the Government: can we now, for everyone's sake, have a period of calm and stability?

8.4 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I entirely support the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, in what he said. But I was astonished to see my name on the list of speakers. It is due to a misapprehension. As my noble friend Lord Carlile and I come from the same area, we would say much the same thing and I understood that I was to speak only if he was not available.

8.5 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I can speak only for the county of Dorset, where I have had some direct experience, but I had not realised the depth of feeling in rural areas throughout the country about what appears to be the abandonment of an efficient traditional system of local justice.

The West Dorset Bench is being stretched beyond its natural limits. It used to centre on Bridport, Dorchester and Sherborne, but it has recently been amalgamated to cover all of Dorset except for Bournemouth, Poole and the surrounding area. It thus extends from Lyme Regis and Wareham to Wool, then north to the east of Blandford and on up to beyond Gillingham. One bench of magistrates therefore sits at five courts for all of that western area, now covering almost all of rural Dorset and over two-thirds of the physical boundary.

I do not know whether your Lordships have attempted to cross rural Dorset, but many do it not to enjoy the landscape but to avoid a miscarriage of justice or repair a broken home. Your Lordships have to imagine a one-parent family living in Sturminster Newton who may now have to go to Weymouth to seek redress or be called as a witness. That is because the axe has now fallen on Gillingham, which closed in October; and Sherborne may well be next. I recently received a letter on this subject from the law courts in Poole, which seem to be the ones to pronounce sentence on our local courts, all in the name of modernisation and efficiency.

The chairman of the West Dorset Bench has summarised some of the issues as follows: many … have to rely on public transport and then either cannot or will not make long journeys. Without the defendants in court we usually have to adjourn the case adding time and cost. Then when the case eventually gets to court, the delay may reduce the effectiveness of the justice we try to dispense. Any further closure of courts would exacerbate an already difficult situation and should, in our view, be resisted as a matter of principle". Those are strong words.

I have sounded out other magistrates, one of whom has just resigned in protest from the Bench after 29 years—someone who has shown exceptional personal commitment. She feels that a system that has administered speedy local justice will eventually collapse under the present Government's policies.

It is, I believe, widely recognised that rural communities feel deserted by the law enforcement agencies, and closing rural courthouses is another way of adding to that abandonment. In Dorset, there have been more cancellations than usual this year, and cases are frequently shifted, affecting the availability of witnesses.

The removal of business altogether from the local courts, which is already happening and which inevitably places a question mark over their survival, is being seen by some as a deliberate attempt in Whitehall to frustrate an ancient and well-tried system. I look forward to the Minister repudiating that.

In paragraph 27 of his recent review, Lord Justice Auld states: All other things being equal, it is clearly desirable for reasons of convenience that courts should be readily accessible to their local communities … decisions of closure should not be taken without assessment of their implications for all involved. It is not solely or even primarily a matter of the potential savings to the courts and their administration". The Government's own press release on 8th October stated that the Government want, modern efficient courts that are in touch with the communities they serve". I hope that they will think again about the direction of the present reforms in the light of their professed policies of local autonomy and devolution, and that they will consider the effect on local people in rural areas.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury for raising this important topic. When I wrote to the Minister about the subject I shall concentrate upon, I did not tell her that I should arrive mob-handed with my noble friend Lord Hooson. However, I hope that the noble Baroness will take note of the fact that two former Members for Montgomeryshire in another place are here to make our strongest representations to the Government for the failures of the Lord Chancellor's Department towards Montgomeryshire and local justice there.

On 24th August of this year, Lembit Öpik, who now represents Montgomeryshire in another place, wrote to the Lord Chancellor referring to assurances that had been given that a new court would be built in Newtown at government expense provided that the strategic plan was agreed by all concerned. In a letter from Mr McDiarmid dated 22nd August of this year, the Lord Chancellor's Department admitted in effect that that undertaking had been given at a meeting attended by Mr Öpik in the presence of the former Minister, Jane Kennedy, and an official, Mr Aldington.

Montgomeryshire has been let down. It is a community of half a million acres, geographically distinctive. The former court at Newtown is in a state of complete disrepair and is unusable. The Lord Chancellor's Department seems to refuse to put money into the old and historic court at Welshpool. I should have thought that the Welshpool court would fulfil the Lord Chancellor's ideal. It belongs to someone else; it can be rented by the day; it can be put into good order at low cost; and it can take all proceedings from the High Court to the magistrates' courts. Yet the department seems unable to take that on board.

We are driven at present to use the court at Llandrindod Wells. It is 27 miles and 365 winding bends from the old court at Newtown. It is 70 miles from some parts of Montgomeryshire. There are no trains. The buses are slow and infrequent. Local solicitors tell me that court users have sometimes to hitchhike 50 or 60 miles in order to get to court. That situation is completely unsatisfactory. It divorces justice in Montgomeryshire from the local people. If someone steals from his local community he should be punished by and in his local community. That is not occurring any more.

We were told that the private finance initiative might produce the funding for a new court for Montgomeryshire. Yet we were told that it was a private finance initiative based on Gwent. Perhaps I may remind the Lord Chancellor's Department and, with great respect, the Minister that Newport is in Gwent but Newtown is nowhere near Gwent. There seems to be some geographical confusion in that august department of state. We were promised that there might be some prospects from the criminal justice reserve; but those hopes were dashed in November last.

So what will the Government do for the people of Montgomeryshire? Are we to assume that local justice in our area is now finished? The Government should he frank. Abandon vain promises. Tell us the truth. Having given the Minister notice of this point, I hope that she will be a little more encouraging than her department has been recently and will give us some prospects for the future.

If we are not to have a decent new courthouse in the future, perhaps the noble Baroness will reflect on this. Temporary arrangements could be made. Learning at the feet of my master, my noble friend Lord Hooson of Llanidloes I, too, appeared in magistrates' courts in Montgomery in a room where I can go dancing on new year's eve; in Llanidloes in a small building in the town; and in Machynlleth in a building which apparently is deemed no longer fit for use. There are plenty of premises which could be used temporarily. But those are dashed from us by the Lord Chancellor's Department which seems not to have the imagination even to make temporary arrangements for a community like Montgomeryshire.

I know that I speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Hooson and my friend Lembit Öpik. Our appeal is that Montgomeryshire should at long last be given serious consideration. I appeal to the Minister. Treat seriously those of us who live in mid-Wales by telling us at the very least the Government's true intentions. We feel that we have been led up the garden path for far too long If the Minister reflects on Mr Öpik's letter, to which I referred earlier, I am sure she will agree.

8.15 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, we have to be realistic about some of the court closures that have taken place and ask whether a court sitting only twice a week or fort night can be a justifiable use of resources.

There has to be an understanding of what "local justice" means. People get very excited about the issue. What is important is that magistrates represent and reflect the community in which they live and that people can be encouraged to come forward from all walks of life. It is particularly important that those who wish to serve the magistracy do not find themselves discriminated against in their professional and business careers.

JPs should welcome the Criminal Courts Review by Lord Justice Auld and the positive support for the system of lay justice. They also have the very clear support of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor who has tried, on numerous occasions, to allay the fears that are genuinely felt by those who think there is an underlying threat to the lay system and that a hidden agenda exists to do away with it.

Given that support, I do not believe that magistrates should be demoralised by what is happening. But they need to be aware of and consulted about any changes. Recent research has shown respect for the office of JP and there is no doubt about public confidence. The magistrates' courts deal with over 90 per cent of the criminal jurisdiction in this country and the appeal rate from their decisions is minimal. So it follows that when a mistake occurs it makes the headlines and is big news.

Given the support enjoyed on so many fronts, magistrates should be arguing for increased jurisdiction in their courts and against the proposals in the Auld review that, when sitting in a newly created district division with a judge, they should take part only in the finding of fact and not in any sentencing process. It does not surprise me that many magistrates find this unacceptable and would not wish to sit in such a court. The proposals might therefore limit the availability of magistrates, making courts less representative of the community.

There is no reason why magistrates' powers should not be extended, as has happened in the Youth Court which can pass sentence of up to two years' custody. Magistrates are now trained and appraised—unlike, I believe, district judges—and the public should have every confidence in their abilities to make structured and reasoned decisions with the help of their legal advisers on matters of law. I also voice my support for the retention of local licensing jurisdiction by the magistracy where its impartial role is longstanding and of benefit to the local community.

However, change is necessary and modernisation of the system, including better use of information technology, is essential. It has taken so many years for the new IT for the courts, LIBRA, to appear that it is almost scandalous. I am led to understand that the benefits of the system will be enormous and that it is to be introduced shortly.

The public need access to an efficient court system, user friendly with all necessary facilities, better services for victims and witnesses and, through the introduction of information services, fewer delays.

8.18 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for initiating the debate.

I have never been a magistrate but, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I am aware of JPs' concerns in Dorset, where I live. With the closure of Gillingham courthouse and the likely closures of those in Sherborne, Bridport, Wimborne and Wareham, how can people afford the cost and travelling time of three hours-plus to get from north Dorset to either Weymouth or Dorchester? It is a rural area with poor transport facilities. Without the support of witnesses coming to court to give evidence, the success of prosecutions will founder. Therefore, how will justice be served? Both witnesses and victims are under stress, so travelling far to a strange town will not be helpful.

I hope that when the Minister replies, she will be able to reassure us that the present rate of closures of courthouses will not continue until more thought has been given especially to rural areas.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury for introducing this important debate. I was appointed as a magistrate in Mid-Sussex and continued serving there for about 18 years. I was appointed at a time when there were few members from ethnic minorities serving as magistrates in England and Wales. There is a genuine concern that magistrates' benches in all areas should be representative of the local community. An unrepresentative bench is unlikely to gain the confidence of those sections of society that are underrepresented or unrepresented.

However, there is some ambivalence about the precise role of the magistrate. There are essentially two concepts of the lay magistracy. Each of these has merit, but they are contradictory. On the one hand there is the commonly held belief that people who appear before the courts should, as far as possible, be tried by their peers—those with similar backgrounds to themselves—rather than by those with very different cultures and values who have very little understanding or appreciation of their way of life. We have to understand the community and all that goes with it. I recollect an incident quoted to me of a magistrate who thought that fruit machines were dispensers of soft drinks, because he had never been aware of the club culture.

The other view emphasises the professional tasks of the role and the qualities necessary for performing them. Very often, despite not having any legal knowledge or background, the magistrate is expected to be like a good professional judge.

The appointment of magistrates now combines the representative nature of the role and the professional qualities required to perform the duties. If that balance is tipped in one way or the other, we are likely to damage the lay magistracy and local justice, which for centuries has served us well.

Where in the world would we find lay magistrates who deal with 95 per cent of all prosecuted crimes? Many individuals have sought appointment because they feel comfortable with a local jurisdiction and no national hierarchy, but that process is gradually being eroded.

The most common complaint that I receive is about the closure of local courts. Some years ago, the Mid-Sussex bench had two courts—one in East Grinstead and the other in Haywards Heath. The East Grinstead court was closed for economic reasons. Unfortunately, that meant that people in East Grinstead had to travel to Haywards Heath if they had to appear in court. There is no direct transport between the two places. People from East Grinstead have to come into London first to get to Haywards Heath. A distance of 15 miles requires a journey of one and a half to two hours.

One of the dangers at that time was that magistrates in Haywards Heath were remanding defendants on bail to appear in Haywards Heath court by 10 o'clock. There was no way in which a defendant could travel by public transport from East Grinstead and arrive there by 10 o'clock. We were assisting people in breach of their bail conditions.

I am told that Mid-Sussex is now to merge with Crawley. The two places could not be more different. Local knowledge in one town has no relevance to the other. What is the rationale behind the policy? The Magistrates' Association is happy to agree with appropriate measures that improve efficiency and redress delays, but it does not support moves that affect the essentially local nature of the service or impose on judicial independence. What consultation has taken place with the Magistrates' Association and how do the Government intend to safeguard the local nature of the service that the courts provide?

There is a tendency at the heart of this Government to centralise much of our democratic system. The resulting process fails to provide ownership. People seem powerless. Look at the last general election, when only 59 per cent of electors voted. The more that we centralise our functions away from local democratic processes, the more remote people feel. The analogy with the restructuring of our court system is no exception. Local justice requires that all magistrates' courts are accessible in terms of opening hours and travelling time to court users. Administrative expediency should not override that important element.

It is evident that there has been no effective consultation. Even at this late stage, before the Auld report is implemented, we need a clear understanding that there will be an agreed consultation process before a decision is taken to close a court. The Magistrates' Association supports the view that the justice system is now close to the point at which there will be no more efficiency savings to be made without seriously harming its essential nature.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, on introducing the debate, which has been of such high quality that I am left with nothing of any real substance to say; so I shall simply put a few questions to the Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that Lord Justice Auld had commented that, although magistrates' committees were in principle independent and took their own decisions about closures, in fact closures were driven by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Does the noble Baroness agree with Lord Justice Auld? If not, could she tell your Lordships' House why Lord Justice Auld has got it wrong?

Secondly, one of the main reasons that the smaller rural courts in my county of Shropshire have been under threat is that they are told that they fail to comply with so-called human rights standards—the docks in the courts are insufficiently secure, there are not proper docking areas for police vans bringing prisoners, prisoners do not have sufficient privacy before they come into court and so on. The cost of putting those problems right can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. From where do those human rights requirements derive? I can find no decision by the European Court of Human Rights stipulating those demands. It is curious that these concerns should have emerged so soon after the Human Rights Act 1998 came on to our statute books when those matters did not seem to be a problem in any respect before then.

My third question concerns those areas that have a mix of courts that are to be financed by PFI arrangements and courts that continue to be dealt with under the old financial scheme. Shropshire has recently amalgamated with Hereford and Worcester. Unlike Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester has concentrated its magistrates' courts into three areas, at least two of which will be financed by PFI.

There is real concern in Shropshire that, because the expenditure on PFI schemes is rather high—the courts are, after all, to be splendid creatures—one of the easiest ways of defraying the cost will be to close rural courts in Shropshire. Can the noble Baroness reassure me that that will not be the case; and that the Lord Chancellor's Department will consider the survival of the rural courts in Shropshire independently from the cost consequences of the construction of PFI courts in the southern part of the area?

Fourthly, will the Minister put some flesh on the much-repeated statement by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the principle of local justice locally delivered is as strong today as it has ever been? Will she assure your Lordships' House that, when any question of a court closure comes up and there is an appeal to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, his dictum will be given due weight in his decision?

Fifthly and finally, will the Minister reassure the House that, in assessing the costs and benefits of closure, the adverse consequences to society of victims and witnesses having to travel long distances, or perhaps choosing not to travel at all, and the implications for justice and good order, will be taken into account?

8.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for introducing this timely debate. We have canvassed many issues. I may not be able to refer to every issue, but if there is any issue that I do not cover, I assure the noble Lords concerned that I shall write to them about it directly.

I did not quite recognise the somewhat gloomy picture painted by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. He described an overbearing administration, terrified magistrates, discouraged into doing the Government's bidding—I took that to mean that the Government's bidding was somehow nefarious and not to be done—and Whitehall discouraging joint use.

I recognise better and commend the comments made by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis in his description of the challenges and how things have to be done. I say immediately to the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, that we greatly value all the work undertaken by magistrates. I was very grateful for the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and for his clarity in describing the work undertaken by the magistrates' court committee.

In relation to our policy on market towns and the decisions on location and the number of magistrates' courts, it really is for the local magistrates' court committee to decide. The table in the Rural White Paper is not intended as a blueprint for a market town of any size. It is meant to be merely an illustrative example of the facilities identified by various organisations in the East Midlands. The local magistrates' court committee and the local authority were consulted. The Government are committed to providing a fair, swift and effective system of justice, and this does not mean a magistrates' court in every town, but it is a decision that the magistrates' court committee must take.

I hope that it is clear that magistrates' courts are managed by locally based magistrates' court committees, as set out in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each of these committees is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates' courts in their area. I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, who illustrated so clearly the function which is diligently carried out by magistrates in their area—quite often very successfully, harmoniously and sensitively, because they are the people who really understand their area, know how the courts will work and can best make that local judgment. It is for the magistrates' court committees, in consultation—I emphasise that word—with their relevant paying authority to determine how many courthouses, whether urban or rural, and what other accommodation are needed locally. In discharging their statutory responsibility, we expect magistrates' court committees to undertake regular reviews of their accommodation requirements. The strategic aims of the magistrates' court committee, the facilities needed and the results of user surveys are just some of the factors that the magistrates' court committees take into consideration when undertaking such reviews.

Magistrates' court committees have to achieve a balance between providing an efficient and effective service to their court users while maintaining secure, well-equipped court accommodation and ensuring full utilisation of the courthouse facilities. All magistrates' court users deserve an efficient service, delivered in well-equipped and secure buildings. Most of the magistrates' courts that have closed so far have been courts which magistrates' court committees no longer felt able to justify, because they lacked the necessary facilities. These are basic standards of accommodation which all court users expect from a modern 21st century service.

Improvements have to be balanced against other factors, such as local transport difficulties. That was rightly highlighted by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. The Government are particularly concerned to ensure the provision of courtrooms best suited to enable cases to be listed in a manner that will achieve our aim of reducing delay in the criminal justice system. Users want their case to be heard on the day it is listed.

Transferring their workload to better-equipped centres is one of the ways to modernise and improve the service overall that magistrates' court committees provide. They have the local knowledge and are best placed to make judgments about how to make the best use of all their resources—whether it is finance, staff or buildings. It is only in the event of a decision being challenged by the paying authority that the Lord Chancellor becomes involved.

A number of noble Lords have raised "local justice" as a term. One definition of "local" will not serve in every case. It means different things to different people, whether it be in the town, the village or the MCC area. For example, some may view local as centred on a particular courthouse or petty sessions area, whereas many interpret local as meaning the MCC area as a whole. Much may depend on the size of the MCC itself, but this is for the magistrates and others who form the local MCC to decide. They are also mindful of the Government's aim to reduce delay by providing the optimum number of courtrooms in their area, permitting flexible listing of cases.

I reassure the noble Lords, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Lord Hooson and Lord Carlile, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, that the Lord Chancellor is committed to making better use of the court estate. That includes magistrates' courts, Crown Courts and county courts. We agree that there is considerable scope for more joint use of courthouses, creating more "justice centres", where hearings of different types of cases can be conducted. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, says, we have promoted this initiative. He painted a picture of our being almost discouraging and not interested in that. We have positively promoted this initiative as a way of going forward productively.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, perhaps I may distinguish between what I think the Minister is talking about, which is a complex used for courts—magistrates' courts, Crown Courts and other courts—and what I am talking about, which is a courthouse that is also used, as in Dorchester, as a council chamber and for many other different purposes.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are not at odds. That is precisely what I am talking about. It is precisely what we have encouraged: the joint use of buildings. There are almost 45 instances of magistrates' courts and the court service sharing accommodation. In addition, there are almost 170 courtrooms throughout England and Wales being used by other agencies, such as the immigration appeal authorities, coroners' courts and the Tax Commissioners. It is very much what we want to see happening in the future.

This is not a court closure programme; but where, for example, two courthouses are close together and all the work can be accommodated in one of the courthouses, it makes good sense to have only one courthouse. In that way, we can maintain access to justice, release funds to improve facilities and improve the efficient use of our estate assets.

I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in relation to concerns regarding Montgomeryshire. The case for a new magistrates' court in Newtown and Carmarthen is accepted. Officials have been exploring ways of providing the new court. The current available funding option is through the private finance initiative procurement route. No capital funding is available at present for a project of this size but existing capital funding has been earmarked for smaller projects, which consist of security, health and safety, disability, and trying to address the backlog of maintenance work. Officials met the justices' chief executive of the Dyfed Powys Magistrates' Court Committee and elected authority members only last Wednesday, 28th November, to discuss ways of moving the procurement forward. Each of the authorities is to consult members to seek commitment to join the Gwent PFI project, and it is anticipated that a decision will be made by early January 2002. Potentially, if the local authorities agree to proceed, new buildings will become available in 2005.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, when can we expect a new court in Montgomeryshire?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that does not fall within the gift of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. It is a matter which will have to be defined in the usual way and as I have just described. I see the noble Lord shaking his head, but I must reiterate that this is a matter for the magistrates' court committee. For so long as it has the authority, it will have to be permitted to make the relevant decisions.

The Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees has published its revised Good Practice Guide on Courthouse Closure. The revised guide is very comprehensive and includes guidance on the impact of new legislation such as the Human Rights Act, We believe that it will prove to be an invaluable reference document when considering courthouse closure and other accommodation issues and we do encourage magistrates' courts committees to follow the advice given in this guide.

By statute magistrates' courts committees are only required to consult with their paying authorities on proposals to close magistrates' courts. But in the spirit of good practice and as recommended by the central council's guidance, MCCs invariably consult much more widely than that. Consultees will typically include magistrates, staff, probation, CPS, MPs and other professional users.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I have not taken part in the debate and I apologise for intervening. I live in Somerset. There is enormous distress at—

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I emphasise that in relation to the extra distance court users may have to travel, the return costs of that travel and the time taken to complete the return journey, that issue is specifically one which MCCs are invited to take into account.

The Rural White Paper commits all major government departments to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Countryside Agency initiative of rural proofing all policy, and therefore to consider the impacts of those policies on rural areas both at the development and the implementation stage. We have requested MCCs to include rural proofing updates in their annual reports and indeed rural issues already feature in a number of factors that we expect MCCs to consider when proposing closures.

The public have a right to expect well equipped courts. It is part of the thrust of the Government's intention to help to modernise the criminal justice system. I refer to the private finance initiative where we have £70 million of credits allocated in each of the next three years. That is an important movement forwards.

I come to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I have answered many of them in the round but time has now run out and I am unable to complete all that I wished to say this evening. However, I undertake to write to noble Lords in relation to specific issues.