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Justice Questions

20th July 2010

Jonathan Djanogly answers questions on magistrates courts, the work they do and the current consultation process.

Administrative Penalties

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): What plans the Government have to review the use of administrative penalties. [9412]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government are undertaking a full assessment of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and reducing reoffending. We are considering our approach to out-of-court penalties as part of this work.

Mr Raab: I thank the Minister for that answer. By 2007, fewer than half the offenders brought to justice-on the previous Government's measure-had ever seen or been passed through the dock of a court. A man who glassed a pub landlady recently was cautioned, and a serial thief was issued with a dozen on-the-spot fines. What plans does he have to reverse Labour's pay-as-you-go crime policy, and does he agree that magistrates courts have a vital role to play?

Mr Djanogly: The number of out-of-court disposals administered each year has risen by 135% since 2003. Such disposals now account for 40% of all offences brought to justice. However, during the same period, the number of convictions at court has remained broadly stable, suggesting that out-of-court penalties are expanding the number of offenders who are dealt with rather than being used as an alternative to prosecution.

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Magistrates Courts

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): How many representations he has received (a) in favour of and (b) against his recent proposals to close a number of magistrates courts; and if he will make a statement. [9415]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We are four weeks into a 12-week public consultation process. As such, the responses to each of the 16 consultation papers have not yet been collated and analysed. This will happen once the consultation closes on 15 September. However, I can confirm that, as of 15 June, there had been 20 letters to Ministers in this Department from hon. Members and Welsh Assembly Members regarding the proposals. Two Adjournment debates on the consultations have also been held.

Mr Llwyd: I am grateful for that detailed response. I have the great pleasure and honour to represent the good people of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, which is 100 miles from north to south and 90 miles from east to west. It currently has two magistrates courts. Under the Government's plans, however, that will be down to one, making a complete and utter mockery of any idea of local justice. May I ask the Minister to think again and consider carefully-and I mean carefully-all the consultations and replies he gets? In the meantime, will he ask his right hon. and learned colleague, the Secretary of State for Justice, to extend the consultation period, because in my 20 years in this place I have never known a serious consultation to take place during August?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman says we should think again, but we are thinking-we are in a consultation process, to which he is entitled and welcome to make comments. There is one court in his constituency on whose closure we are consulting. It is envisaged that work from this court will be transferred to Caernarfon magistrates court, which is approximately 20 miles away. The court in question has a very low utilisation rate, at just 28.9%. It sits two days per week in one courtroom and its facilities are generally considered to be inadequate.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Will the Minister take into account, when making a decision on the closure of the magistrates courts, the facilities and the wider social implications of individual court closures? Barry magistrates court has separate entrances for witnesses and defendants, which is an important consideration in a range of cases, particularly those of domestic violence. Will that sort of issue be a factor?

Mr Djanogly: We remain committed to supporting local justice being administered in magistrates courts, but my hon. Friend would be wrong to confuse community justice, access to justice, efficient justice, speedy summary justice or timely administration with bricks and mortar.

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Wisbech Magistrates Court

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): What account he took of the availability of public transport in rural areas around Wisbech in his decision to propose the closure of Wisbech magistrates court. [9428]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): In selecting courts on which to consult, one of the key principles applied was to try and ensure that people should not have to make excessively long or difficult journeys to attend court. Although it is important, proximity to a court should not be the only consideration-we need also to consider the speed with which cases are dealt with and the quality of the facilities at our courts. We also want to explore ways we can harness technology more effectively so people do not necessarily physically have to attend court when accessing court services.

Stephen Barclay: I thank the Minister for that reply and for the constructive way in which he is consulting. As he says, proximity is not the only factor but what is relevant is how many people are affected by a journey of more than 60 minutes. Will he clarify which year he is using to assess the population given that Fenland has seen a significant increase in its numbers in recent years? Will he allow for the housing trend where planning permission has already been given?

Mr Djanogly: We are consulting on one court in my hon. Friend's constituency, Wisbech. As my hon. Friend noted, it is envisaged that work from that court will be transferred to Peterborough magistrates court, which is approximately 23 miles away. Travel times and distances will be constant from various locations within the constituency, so population is only one aspect to consider. We must also consider the frequency of court attendance, which is very low in Wisbech, with a utilisation of only 37%.

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Topical Questions

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): In the light of the Legal Services Commission's recent misallocation of duty solicitor scheme membership and duty rotas for criminal legal aid work, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake an urgent review of the LSC's continuing inefficiencies?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): My hon. Friend has just made serious accusations of mismanagement, and I shall certainly consider the issues that he has raised and get back to him shortly.

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Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Given the proposed review of legal aid, does the Justice Secretary agree that the problems faced by the Refugee and Migrant Justice organisation because of the late payment of fees and the lack of clarity about the number of current cases affected-the Home Office has told me that it is 5,000 and the Legal Services Commission has admitted that it simply does not know-mean that it is vital for the Government to intervene until these problems are resolved to prevent that organisation from going into administration and to avoid the possibility of further chaos, with expense, within our asylum system?

Mr Djanogly: I am pleased that the hon. Lady has brought up this important issue. The RMJ was maintaining that it had 10,000 clients, but the administrators who went into that organisation to put it into administration assessed the number of clients at more like between 4,000 and 5,000. What is important is the clients. We need to move on from the administration of that organisation to concentrating on its clients, and I assure her that the Department and I are doing exactly that.

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Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): Can the Minister tell the House whether his Department has undertaken any study of the comparative costs of trials in magistrates courts and Crown courts?

Mr Djanogly: The average daily costs in Crown courts is more than double those of magistrates courts at about £1,700, compared with £800 a day, and Crown court cases take much longer of course. That is why it is imperative that we rebalance cases between magistrates courts, operating at some 64% of capacity, and Crown courts, operating at full capacity, to ensure that we get value for money.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): On the subject of magistrates courts, will Ministers consider seriously any proposal from magistrates that would have them hearing cases in venues other than courts so that they can continue to deliver local justice locally?

Mr Djanogly: The answer to that is yes, especially in the context of an increased use of technology.

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