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Court Closures (Yorkshire) Debate

7th July 2010

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a debate about proposals to close the Magisrates Court at Goole.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for contributing to the debate. I compliment them on the quality and sincerity of their defence of their local courts.

I shall set out the Government's position on the court reform proposals, and provide some details about the courts that currently sit in Goole and Selby. I shall also explain the reasoning behind the inclusion of those courts on the list of possible closures.

In my new role, I have taken the opportunity to visit courts and meet the staff, professional judiciary and magistrates who work hard to deliver justice in communities throughout England and Wales. I have been very impressed by all that I have seen so far. It is evident that courts are run by a dedicated partnership of Her Majesty's Courts Service staff and judiciary, and I am personally committed to continuing to support their contribution to justice.

What has also been clear in my first few weeks in office is the country's economic position, and the immediate need to take action to address the structural deficit. Following the emergency Budget, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor outlined our plans to consult on the closure of a number of courts, as well as to seek wider views on how court services could be modernised. That is one strand of the Ministry of Justice's plans to look critically and holistically at how we deliver justice, and to think about how we continue to deliver those critical services in the future. We have also announced plans to consider sentencing and legal aid.

The decision to consult on the closure of courts was not taken lightly or in isolation. We know we cannot deliver the quality of facilities the public rightly expect and deserve, because we are working out of too many courts. Our low utilisation rate-only 65% across England and Wales-shows that we do not need the number of courts we currently have. Recent improvements in transport and communication links mean that people can travel further in less time if they need to. More can be done to access justice online and via the telephone, which reduces the circumstances in which a visit to court would be necessary.

We need some fresh thinking about the wider issue of access to local justice. We need to consider whether past ideas about needing a court in every town are relevant today or whether-as with almost every other aspect of modern life-things can be done differently, and innovation and technology can be embraced to meet the needs of modern society and ensure better access to justice.

We are already doing a lot to improve the service experienced by witnesses, defendants and other court users. We have increased access to online and telephone services. Currently 70% of money claims, and the vast majority of possession actions are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements, or for not paying their TV licence on time. They can also pay off debts or court fees online using a wide variety of methods. We are improving the availability of information provided on the web and over the telephone from dedicated information centres. That will allow front-line staff to focus on people who need to see a judge. We are increasing the use of video link technology between prisons and courts, and piloting video links between police stations and courts.

Whenever possible, we need to support people to explore a variety of dispute resolution routes for family and civil cases. Such routes are better for those involved in cases that can be mediated, as they can avoid unpleasant prolonged and expensive litigation. Such a situation is also better for the courts because it should reduce court time and overall costs.

We are exploring how local communities can support those charged with a minor offence before their criminality escalates. We are working closely with local support agencies and networks to ensure that appropriate help is available for people with multiple underlying problems that drive their offending behaviour.

The court reform consultation seeks views on the proposed closure of 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts that are underused and have inadequate facilities. It began on 23 June and will run until 15 September. All responses will be fully considered before decisions are made. The consultation will set out a sustainable arrangement of court services across England and Wales to meet the needs of local communities and will allow us to deliver services in the most efficient way. The proposals would achieve savings of £15.3 million a year in running costs and enable us to avoid a maintenance backlog costing £21.5 million. A further assessment will be necessary of the savings that could be achieved and the value that could be released from disposal of the properties. However, I appreciate that those are generalities.

My hon. Friends asked about the two magistrates courts in their constituencies. I have listened to what they have said and will continue to listen to what they and others say during the consultation. The Lord Chancellor's decision on whether to close Goole and Selby magistrates courts will not be easy; nor will his decisions on the other courts listed in the consultation. Each decision is balanced against several factors, including utilisation, maintenance costs and proximity to other courts. My hon. Friends' points are valid, but we have to look at each court's work load in the context of local justice across each area.

Goole magistrates court has a low utilisation rate, as it sits for less than a third of the available time. It sits in a local criminal justice board area whose overall utilisation rate is low, which we consider does not deliver value for money to taxpayers. Given that we know that there is so little demand for a magistrates court in Goole, I find the argument for investing considerable public spending there on backlog maintenance work of around £80,000 difficult to make, especially as Beverley, where the work would move, is only 28 miles away and has ample capacity to take on the additional work.

With regard to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole made about distance, we consider a one-hour journey by public transport acceptable for travel to court. Not many people are frequent users of magistrates courts. I assure him that we do not propose closing the court in Goole only because of the performance of the court in Beverley, but we must look at utilisation over the whole area.

My hon. Friend asked why we do not close Bridlington magistrates court. The decision was taken by local management and took into account a range of aspects to ensure sufficient capacity in the area, based on the total number of courtrooms in each court.

Andrew Percy: On the point about people being within an hour's journey of the court, the figures I mentioned indicate that it would take at least an hour and 25 minutes to travel by bus from Goole to Beverley, including a change in Hull because there is no direct bus. Incidentally, there is a direct bus service between Bridlington and Beverley, although I do not suggest the closure of Bridlington. The figure of one hour and 25 minutes is a minimum, and the journey time is more likely to be one hour and 39 minutes.

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes a fair and relevant point, which he should submit for consideration in the consultation. The original reason for the location of many courts is that they were intended to be half an hour's horse ride away from population centres. We thought that a one-hour journey by public transport was probably more in tune with modern thinking. I assure him that we will do our best to provide him with information on running costs and the other statistics he requested. Again, he should advise us in his response to the consultation of any statistics he has.

As Goole is the only magistrates court in the local justice area of Goole and Howdenshire, we propose that the three LJAs should merge to create a single entity for east Yorkshire, covering the whole of the east riding. Relatively few magistrates sit at the three benches we propose to combine-only 95 in total. Combining the three will provide a pool large enough to facilitate a more efficient listing of work and reduce the amount of administrative work involved. There will also be advantages for magistrates, allowing them more flexibility in sittings and a wider variety of work.

Although Selby magistrates court has good facilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty said, it too is underused, sitting only around 60% of the time available. Like Goole, it sits in a local criminal justice board area that has a low overall utilisation rate. Selby benefits from being located only 15 miles from York, which is capable of absorbing the work from Selby and has good transport links to all parts of west and north Yorkshire, although I believe my hon. Friend questioned that in his earlier remarks. His point was that people in the south of his constituency did not have such good access. I encourage him to make that point in the consultation. I was aware of the refurbishment of the Selby magistrates court, but I believe that there is currently a backlog of maintenance work to the value of about £100,000.

Selby and York local justice areas already have joint panels, so merging the two would simply formalise that arrangement and reap the administrative benefits. I understand that the closure of courts in several communities will concern hon. Members and some of their constituents. I welcome views on the proposal, and they will be taken into account before decisions are made. However, I want to make it clear that I believe that operating out of around 530 court houses is unsustainable and does not offer the taxpayer value for money. I reiterate the point that we need to think more widely than bricks and mortar when considering access to justice; we need to embrace in the justice sector many of the technological advances that we take for granted in our work and social lives.

Another point I will address in the time remaining is the impact the proposals will have on local justice. That important point was picked up in different ways by both my hon. Friends. My answer is that there absolutely will not be an impact on local justice. The Government remain committed to a system in which justice is done and seen to be done in the communities affected by crime. The quality of justice matters equally. It is not assured simply by having a court building in each small town, as populations are more mobile and use more sophisticated communications than ever before. The speed with which cases are decided, the facilities we provide to meet the needs of all court users and the respect for the quality of our justice system must be as important, if not more important, than locality. The involvement of communities in the justice system is absolutely key to that, both as magistrates and assistants. With more than 95% of criminal cases heard by magistrates, there is no doubt about the scale of community involvement in justice. I will continue to support magistrates as the bedrock of our justice system. I have held meetings with magistrates' associations and individual magistrates, and will continue to do so to prove the Government's support for the magistracy.

HMCS provided £21,000 of funding in 2009-10 for magistrates in the community scheme run by the Magistrates Association. On community engagement, HMCS works with magistrates and other justice agencies to host regular open days that provide local communities with insight on how justice agencies work together to serve the community, staging mock trials to encourage understanding of the justice system.

We want people to resolve civil disputes more quickly and effectively. County courts, of course, are involved in the proposals as well. Justice does not take place only in court; uncontested money and property disputes can be resolved through our online services, Money Claims Online and Property Claims Online. We are exploring ways of increasing the use of alternative dispute resolution when it can provide more effective and satisfactory solutions than a day in court.

The time is right to take a fresh look at the provision of court services to meet the challenging and changing needs of the justice agencies and society. Work loads are falling in the magistrates courts and court time has been saved by magistrates and court staff working together with increased efficiency. An example is the success of "Criminal justice: simple, speedy, summary", which speeds up the time from charge to disposal and drastically reduces the need for adjournment. We are developing better ways of delivering justice and will continue to improve them.

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