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Clause 30 - Places, dates and times of sittings

Part of Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45 pm, 1st July 2003

Amendment No. 2 deals with the now familiar subject of locality, proximity, accessibility—call it what you will. It makes the point that directions may be given under clause 30(2)

''to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''

Clause 30(1) states that

''The Lord Chancellor may give directions as to the places in England and Wales at which magistrates' courts may sit.''

The amendment will ensure that, before making the direction, the Lord Chancellor will consult with the relevant courts boards, which have a duty to scrutinise and review such arrangements, and local authorities in the area, which may be said to speak for the local community at large. The amendment takes a belt-and-braces approach so that, as far as possible, the community can make sure that access to justice is maintained locally between the people who are running the courts, working in them and using them, and the general public who have a legitimate interest in the court remaining in their area.

The point at issue is to ensure that courthouses are available and accessible to the local community, which, as expressed through the local authority, has a locus in such matters. At present, the local authority is often involved in proposals to close courts—often, the primary objection comes from the local authority. For example, Mendip district council led the campaign to save Frome court in my constituency from closure. Local justice was needed. Apart from all the issues that we have raised about the workings of the court system, we must bear it in mind that, more and more, particularly in rural areas and small communities, there is a feeling that the justice apparatus is becoming more remote, that local people no longer have the police presence that they once had and the direct accountability of the forces of law and order.

The courthouse is a physical manifestation of the fact that there still is an engagement for the community in respect of law and order, and local justice. It is an important aspect. The Minister would do well to consider how local authorities are brought into the loop effectively in respect of consultation to ensure maximum local consensus about such matters.

Amendment No. 129 deals with a slightly different issue, although it might seem similar. It would introduce the words

''in the local justice area''

to subsection (5), which states:

''The places are—

(a) a place in the local justice area in which the offence is alleged to have been committed;

(b) a place in the local justice area in which the person charged with the offence resides;

(c) a place in the local justice area in which the witnesses, or the majority of the witnesses, reside''.

That is fine until paragraph (d), which states

''a place where other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''.

That does not refer to the local justice area.

At our first sitting, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) raised the concept of batch processing. That is a worry to magistrates, who consider that either they will be doing the same business in a repetitive way, or that business will be taken away from them, leaving them only with lesser fodder for their courts. It may be deemed extremely efficient and effective to have that done at a remote location in a centralised court for an area, but that would be inconvenient for everyone else involved. It would be extremely inconvenient for the court officials to deal in Bristol with all the parking offences in the Avon and Somerset police authority area. That would be extraordinarily inconvenient for someone who committed a driving offence and who happens to live on Exmoor or at the other end of the authority area. Such a situation is not ruled out under the present arrangements. Inserting the words

''in the local justice area''

would mean that, if we are to have batch processing of similar cases, we at least retained the sense of locality and the convenience for the local court user, as well as the convenience of the system. Reducing things to more manageable proportions will prevent some of the proposals from having the sausage-factory effect, which many people find rather repugnant. The Minister might not be able to accept my amendment, but can he explain why

''in the local justice area''

is not included in paragraph (d)? I suspect that he wants to have a single processing court for dealing with large numbers of similar offences in a place remote from where the offender, witnesses, legal representatives, police officers and everybody else are living. If so, he is advancing an argument for a rather remote and inefficient form of justice, which I personally deplore.