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Courts Service

14th July 2010

Jonathan Djanogly replies to a debate on the Courts Service and sets out the background to the proposed reorganisation of court provision in England and Wales.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): This has been a full debate, with many hon. Members speaking with passion for their constituencies and, indeed, for the courts in their constituencies. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for not only initiating the debate, but broadening the scope of the discussion to the whole Courts Service, rather than just focusing on the courts in his constituency. That is helpful in allowing me to set out the wider position, although I recognise that the number of hon. Members from Welsh constituencies who have attended the debate is significant.

I will set out the Government's position on the court reform proposals and discuss the reasoning behind the proposed reorganisation of court provision in England and Wales. In my new role, I have taken the opportunity to visit courts and I have been very impressed by all 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. 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. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) compared the previous Government's 20 closures in five years with our consultation on a much larger proposed closure programme. She will appreciate that the deficit is somewhat larger now, which, as she recognised, requires that we get better value for the money we spend.

Following the emergency Budget, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor outlined our plans to consult on the closure of a number of courts, and 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 look at sentencing and legal aid. I am committed to consulting on the proposals, and to considering broader ways to improve and reform the Courts Service, which is why I welcome this debate. However, I say to the hon. Lady that we consider the consultation period to be adequate in the circumstances.

The decision to consult on the closure of courts was not taken lightly or in isolation. I wish I could say to the hon. Lady that the savings would be adequate to meet Treasury requirements, which I think was a point she made. However, that is sadly not the case. It would be wrong to tie the number of courts that finally close after consultation to overall savings requirements. We know we cannot deliver the quality of facilities that the public rightly expect and deserve, because we are working out of too many courts.

A low utilisation rate of only 65% across England and Wales in the magistrates courts and an average of only 130 sitting days per year-compared with a target of 200 sitting days-in the county courts shows that we do not need the number of courts we have. Recent improvements in transport and communication links mean that people can travel further in less time if they need to and more can be done to access justice online and via the telephone. That reduces the circumstances in which a visit to court would be necessary.

Maria Eagle: Does the Minister accept that such under-utilisation is because of a fall in crime of more than a third during the last period of the Labour Government?

Mr Djanogly: There are a large number of issues. I will come to some of them, but if I give way frequently, there is no way I will get through the points made today. We need to focus on delivering more with less, and on ensuring that we are delivering value for taxpayers' money. When HMCS owns, manages and pays for a court building, it is my responsibility to show that it is cost-effective. It is right to set a minimum utilisation rate of 80% across each local justice area, so that local courts and magistrates can make local decisions about where work should go.

The court reform consultation seeks views on proposals to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts that are underused and/or have inadequate facilities. The consultation lasts until 15 September and all responses will be fully considered before a decision is made. The consultation sets out a sustainable arrangement of court services across England and Wales to meet the needs of local communities, and allows us to deliver services in the most efficient way. The proposals will achieve running-cost savings of some £15.3 million per year, as well as enabling us to avoid a backlog of some £21.5 million of maintenance costs. A further assessment will be necessary of the level of savings that could be achieved and the potential value that could be released from the disposal of properties.

Local justice is important. We need to think about what that means for today's society, and I welcome responses to the consultation. People should not have to make unreasonably long journeys to reach a court. The vast majority of the public should be able to access a court within an hour's travel, but proximity to a court should not be the only consideration. We also need to consider utilisation, the maintenance situation, the speed cases are dealt with and the quality of the facilities for court users within a courthouse.

I confirm to the hon. Member for Ceredigion that we are considering how we can enable magistrates to work more effectively. HMCS will work with justices of the peace to rota them to the courts that are most convenient for them. The structure and organisation of our courts has evolved over years. We need to take a step back and think about how we would ideally organise this important public service. We need to make courts available in the areas that need them, but I contend that we simply do not need 530 courts across the country. Instead, we must focus on ensuring that our courts are multi-functional and able to deal with all the work quickly and effectively.

In recent years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in cases that need to go before magistrates and county courts. In answer to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, in magistrates courts that has happened in part thanks to the increased speed and efficiency at which the magistracy process works, allowing a reduction in the time taken between charge and disposal, and a dramatic reduction in the number of unnecessary intermediate hearings. However, we also know that more defendants are pleading guilty at the first hearing, and that certain types of case no longer need a judicial hearing, such as low-level nuisance offending and licensing cases.

It may help the hon. Lady if I mention some figures that illustrate that trend. Cases commenced in the magistrates courts fell by 33% between 2004 and 2009. In 2009-10, 33 magistrates courts sat for less than 33% of their total available hours, and 55 courts sat for less than 50% of their total available hours. Since 2007, the number of hearings per case has fallen by more than 20% to 2.26 hearings per case in 2009-10. So in five years, there has been an overall reduction in the magistrates work load of around a third. In turn, that has resulted in the magistrates court estate being utilised at an average of only around 65%. In county courts, reductions in work load stem from the wider availability of alternatives to court, such as the range of alternative ways of resolving disputes. If people can be spared the inconvenience and, for some, the stress of attending court for routine matters that do not need to go before a judge, we should do all we can to open up alternatives for them.

I turn to the matters relating to the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the proposal to close Cardigan magistrates court. He will have a fuller answer than other hon. Members, because he initiated the debate. However, if other Members wish to know more, they can write to me later.

If Cardigan magistrates court were to close, the work would mainly transfer to Aberystwyth magistrates court. Merging the Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire local justice areas, as is also proposed, would allow cases to be heard at Haverfordwest magistrates court. I am aware that the utilisation rate of Cardigan magistrates court is extremely low-just 22%-which is in part because of the lack of custody facilities at the court. That has resulted in a much reduced variety of work being heard there.

Let me make the situation clear. The utilisation rate across the whole Dyfed Powys criminal justice board area is just 47%, which means that there is a general over-supply of courtrooms and little justification to spend additional money on new facilities and courts in the area. If Cardigan magistrates court were to close, the hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned about the difficulty his residents and people who live in the surrounding area would face in travelling to court elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman made the case generally for west Wales. He should advise the consultation of his concerns, which will be listened to and considered in the consultation's impact assessment. I welcome responses on that and any other concerns about potential impacts.

Mr Mark Williams: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said so far, but I would like to hear a little more about rural-proofing. I was concerned enough about Ceredigion and west Wales, but having heard some of the earlier contributions, I am now even more concerned about the situation in Hexham and in north Wales generally. People will have to travel vast distances, and the public transport system simply does not comply with those needs.

Mr Djanogly: Let us consider that travel problem as it relates to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which I am sure he wants to hear about. The distance between Cardigan and Aberystwyth is 38 miles, which is about an hour's drive, or approximately two hours by bus. The distance between Cardigan and Haverfordwest is 29 miles, which is a drive of around 48 minutes or a bus journey of approximately one hour and 15 minutes. I accept the point that those distances are measured from the current court and that some of his constituents will have longer journeys.

However, by merging the Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion local justice areas, it should be possible to be more flexible and effective and to have fewer cases, with the location of victims, witnesses and defendants in mind. For example, HMCS could work with the police to ensure that cases originating south of Cardigan are heard at Haverfordwest and that those originating north of Cardigan are heard in Aberystwyth. However, when discussing travelling distances and times we must bear in mind that people in the surrounding area often have their own transport arrangements for other purposes. In any case-I say this in reply also to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison)-most members of the public will need magistrates court services pretty infrequently in the course of their lives.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to the redevelopment of the court at Aberystwyth, which I realise is of as great interest to him as the potential closure of the court at Cardigan. Although work from Cardigan could now easily be absorbed at Aberystwyth, he will be aware that HMCS plans to build a new court at Aberystwyth. Nothing would please me more than to give him greater certainty about the future of that project, but he will appreciate that I am unable to do so at the moment. It is within the HMCS portfolio of major building projects and is at the final business case stage, but as the proposed construction will run into 2011-12, the project will need to be assessed by the Treasury in the spending review process.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) referred in his speech to the magistrates court at Ammanford, and I assure him that we have given thought to its inclusion in the proposals. There are two courts in his constituency on whose closure we are consulting-Ammanford and Llandovery magistrates courts. If closed, it is envisaged that work from those courts would be transferred to Llanelli and Carmarthen magistrates courts, but no decisions will be made on work load transfer until the consultation responses have been considered and the Secretary of State has decided which courts will close.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) today made his second passionate speech in defence of his local courts, and I agree with him. He will wish to make his further findings known to the consultation.

I will write to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) to respond to his numerous questions, but I can assure him now that in our view the consultation period is adequate. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has much court experience, and he spoke strongly about the courts in his constituency being consulted about closure. I assure him that access to justice is relevant to the consultation, but good, efficient and timely justice is not necessarily a question of bricks and mortar.

We need fresh thinking on the wider question of access to justice. We need to consider whether the ideas of the past 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. We need to embrace innovation and technology to ensure better access to justice and meet the needs of modern society. We are already doing much to improve the service experienced by witnesses, defendants and other users of the courts. We have increased access to online and telephone services; currently, 70% of money claims and the vast majority of possession actions in the county courts are issued centrally via electronic channels. People can pay fines online for driving infringements or for not paying their TV licence fee on time. They can also pay off debts or court fees online using a wide variety of methods.

I am not sure how much time I have remaining, given the suspension.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): One minute.

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire spoke up for his court in Trowbridge, which I understand is-

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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