Clause 42 - Abolition of local justice areas

Judicial Review and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 18th November 2021.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:15 pm, 18th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 96, in clause 42, page 52, line 34, at end insert—

“(7) Before introducing the changes outlined in section (1), the Secretary of State must consult with relevant stakeholders on the impact of the proposals.”.

This amendment would require the government to consult on the abolition of local justice areas before any changes are introduced.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. We are now debating chapter 5 of part 2 of the Bill, which covers local justice areas. Before I get into the detail of the amendment, I too have reflected on our attitude and approach to the Bill, and I think the Minister has been slightly unkind in thinking that Opposition Members had some sort of ulterior motive in proposing what we have along the way. I reassure the Minister and the Committee that our entire agenda has been to ensure that anything the Minister proposes is workable and protects people, including the most vulnerable and the elderly—[Interruption.] I am not implying that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is elderly, but he has made the point in the past that we need to protect the elderly, and the Opposition also want that. It is important that the Minister understands that we want a more efficient court system as well.

I was also reflecting on what the Minister said this morning when he was trying to justify the growing crisis, particularly in our Crown courts. He tried to claim that, prior to covid, things had improved, in terms of the number of cases before the courts and the efficiency of the system. In fact, in 2010, we had more police, more charges and more cases before the courts. However, the crux of the matter is the actual statistics relating to how efficiently cases were dealt with. In 2010, it took 391 days, on average, for a case to come through the court system, from charge to completion. In 2019, it took 511 days, on average, for a case to pass through the Crown courts, which I think illustrates that, while there were fewer cases, they were taking longer to go through the court system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, that reflects the huge cuts we have seen to the Ministry of Justice since 2010. Perhaps, had it not been for those cuts, that average would in fact have come down, as there were fewer cases in the system.

Clause 42 will abolish local justice areas. Organisations across the sector have raised a number of potential issues that this would cause, which I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on. I understand it was the Government’s intention that, in place of local justice areas, all magistrates and magistrates courts will be put into one national justice area covering England and Wales, as recommended by Lord Justice Auld’s 2001 review of the criminal justice system, in order to facilitate listing. That proposal is now 20 years old and has not been updated, nor is it supported by additional research in that time, so why would the Government want to rely on that information now?

I am aware of Sir Brian Leveson’s 2015 review of the efficiency of criminal proceedings in England and Wales, in which he supported further steps to unify the criminal courts, although he did not mention anything about abolishing local justice areas. The Government’s explanatory notes to the Bill state that the proposal will

“provide the courts with the freedom and flexibility to manage their caseloads more effectively and ensure that cases are dealt with sooner and in more convenient places.”

More convenient for whom? There is a long-held principle in this country whereby justice is expected to be done for a local community by members of that local community.

I recall my visits earlier this year to Hartlepool, where residents feel strongly that they should have a local court to dispense justice in their own town. Indeed, during the by-election Conservatives promised local residents that they would restore local services that had been cut. Just a few weeks later in a written answer to me, the Minister’s predecessor confirmed that they would not even consider reopening the magistrates court that had been closed by his Government in 2017. Local residents were extremely disappointed and felt cheated. Will the Minister reconsider opening the Hartlepool court to help reduce the backlog across Teesside and beyond—local justice areas or not?

The Opposition are worried about the impact of a curtailment of local justice, which is proposed in the Bill. Transform Justice explains:

“Magistrates are representatives of the people and must have a connection to the area in which they sit. An applicant to the magistracy must currently live or work in their local justice area, so they understand the area, its crime trends and its people. All magistrates are members of a bench made up of other magistrates local to that area. The abolition of local justice areas is likely to lead to a diminution of local justice, including a weakening of the links benches currently have with local criminal justice agencies.”

How does the Minister suggest we maintain this local community link? Is he content for magistrates to be parachuted into local courts from across the country or for cases to be listed who knows how many miles away from where defendants, victims and witnesses live?

Transport Justice raised the issue that the proposals would diminish the independence of the magistracy. It says:

“Magistrates have historically retained an independence from the paid judiciary and governed themselves through democratic processes. They have managed their own ongoing training and disciplinary processes. All leadership roles have been subject to democratic election by peers.”

While the Government’s proposals are scant on detail, it seems that these democratically elected posts will be abolished and that the functions carried out voluntarily by the magistrates will be taken over by court staff and paid judges. Have they not got enough to do? Do the Government foresee that leading to a diminishment of the magistracy’s independence? Will this hand over some of their responsibilities to the senior judiciary? Transform Justice believes:

“Given magistrates’ status as members of the community and ‘representatives of the people’, and their expertise in management, this is not appropriate.”

I worry that the role of magistrates as dispensers of justice from the community will be lost, with all the benefit that that entails.

Why has the proposal been changed slightly since the Prisons and Courts Bill of 2016-17? Under that Bill, which fell with the announcement of the 2017 general election, the Government had exhaustively set out consequential modifications and repeals in a schedule. Under this Bill, the Lord Chancellor would be given a power, exercisable by regulations, to

“make consequential or supplementary provision in relation to the abolition of local justice areas.”

That includes the power to amend, repeal or revoke provision made by or under Acts of Parliament. This is another Henry VIII clause.

On Tuesday, the Minister smiled time and again when I talked of a Government power grab—I think he is probably smiling behind his mask again—and they are at it again. This measure has an impact on witnesses, defendants and victims, of course, as well as the families of all those people. Regulations that amend or repeal any Act of Parliament would remain subject to the affirmative procedure. Otherwise, regulations are made under the negative procedure and do not require prior parliamentary approval. Will the Minister explain why this change was made? Surely it removes helpful accountability and scrutiny mechanisms.

I now move to amendment 96. The Law Society, in its briefing on the Bill, states that local justice areas are

“central to the principle of local justice”

and stresses the fact that the

“abolition of these local justice areas will likely see more trials listed in courts far away from defendants and witnesses, which will inevitably lead to more court attendance being conducted remotely. This would be a significant change from the present system”.

Ellie Cumbo, its head of public law, gave evidence to the Committee. She said that clause 42

“obviously risks forcing parties to a case to travel much greater distances, at great cost to themselves and to the courts in the event of delays and cases having to be taken off as a result.”––[Official Report, Judicial Review and Courts Public Bill Committee, 2 November 2021; c. 55, Q85.]

This is a recurring theme in the Opposition’s concerns and, again, I hope the Minister can reassure me. How will the Government ensure that measures they are introducing to encourage efficiency do not end up having the opposite effect? I have posed this question several times in the passage of this Bill. I suggest that one measure would be in supporting our amendment.

Ms Cumbo said further:

“There is also a point of principle around justice being seen to be done at that local level where it feels like it relates to the community from which all parties are drawn. What we would ask is for a consultation with local stakeholders before those provisions go ahead.”––[Official Report, Judicial Review and Courts Public Bill Committee, 2 November 2021; c. 55, Q85.]

The proposal to abolish local justice areas has not been publicly consulted on, and the Opposition thinks it ought to be.

Therefore, amendment 96 is straightforward and would simply require the Government to consult relevant stakeholders on the abolition of local justice areas before the changes are actually introduced. I am sure the Minister can see the sense in consultation, as it can help ensure the approach the Government takes is an informed one.

As I have said before, the Opposition appreciate the need for increased efficiency in the criminal courts, and we want to support the Government in that aim, but we need to know what to expect from these proposals so we can mitigate any difficulties as we transition to new ways of working.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice) 3:30 pm, 18th November 2021

I appreciate the various questions from the hon. Gentleman. The key point in his amendment is consultation. Specifically, the amendment proposes to set out in primary legislation a requirement for the Government to consult with relevant stakeholders on the abolition of local justice areas before any changes are introduced.

The hon. Gentleman asked how I feel about consultation. To be clear, on Monday I held a meeting to which I invited all MPs who are or have been magistrates to talk about elements of the Bill. I am pleased to say that a group of colleagues did come—unfortunately, from only one party, but MPs from all parties were invited. Of course, those who did not attend will have had a very good reason. The point that I am making is that I have personally engaged with MPs who are magistrates, or were until they were elected. It was a very interesting conversation. I note that, just as I talk about MPs who are or have been magistrates, my parliamentary private secretary, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, has entered the Committee Room, and she is of course a magistrate herself.

It is fair of the hon. Member for Stockton North to raise the point of consultation, because of course magistrates are a very important part of the voluntary judiciary, we might say. I recognise the herculean task that they faced to deal with the backlog that arose in the pandemic. The position of the magistrates courts is far more up to speed than it was, although further work needs to be done, which is why the Bill contains several measures to assist with that.

Clause 42 will create a more flexible and unified criminal court by removing local justice areas, which currently restrict work and magistrates from being moved easily between courts. It will also provide the opportunity to improve and enhance the leadership structures of the magistracy. The removal of local justice areas will mean that the current inflexible arrangements for the organisation of magistrates and magistrates courts’ business will be removed from primary legislation. The detail of such arrangements will instead be non-statutory, by way of a protocol to help to ensure greater flexibility and close alignment with the Crown court arrangements. It will mean that arrangements that are specific to local areas and better suited to local needs will be discussed and agreed with the relevant criminal justice and local authority partnerships, in effect moving away from the statutory model to the one that operates in a Crown court.

Our hope is that that leads to much better working between the Crown and magistrates. I am sure that all colleagues recognise that that relationship is absolutely fundamental to the criminal justice system. I said earlier that the common thread in the Bill was streamlining. For example, clause 11 will see more cases remitted from the Crown court to the magistrates court, freeing up—by our estimate—about 400 days in the Crown court. If people see the big picture of better operational working between Crown court and magistrates, that is another very specific and tangible point within the aim of dealing with the backlog and streamlining justice.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister has made a good start to answering my concerns around this particular area with talk of the protocol. However, we all talk about travel-to-work areas, so would he care to comment on travel-to-justice areas and say how far he might expect people to travel for justice when his new protocol is brought into place?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Just to be clear, ensuring that magistrates are assigned, wherever possible, to what we would call a home court, near to where they live, is and will remain an important consideration under the revised arrangements. However, there are a number of advantages in allowing magistrates to work across courts, including the sharing of best practice, maintaining a wide and varied case load, and developing skills across a range of competencies.

Return to the amendment and consultation, the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice already have a statutory duty, under section 21 of the Courts Act 2003, to ascertain the views of lay magistrates on matters affecting them. Magistrates will still be assigned to a home court, as I just said, and ensuring that that court is as close to where they live as possible will remain an important consideration under the new arrangements. However, they will have the flexibility to work in other courts, should they wish to do so.

Ultimately, it will be for the Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary to determine what new arrangements are to be put in place and to what extent they will differ, if at all, from the current ones. Such changes have always been made in consultation with local criminal justice partners, including magistrates, and that will continue to be the case.

Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that magistrates and other relevant stakeholders will be fully consulted as any proposals are developed, to ensure that local business needs are met, and I urge him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I can be brief. The Minister talked about the protocol and the role of the senior judiciary in determining guidance, perhaps, for decision making in this particular arena. My concern remains around the potential impact on victims, witnesses and defendants, who may well be required to travel greater distances in order to access justice.

However, on the basis of what the Minister has said, I am content to withdraw the amendment, although I hope that he continues to consider travel distances for people involved in the justice system, victims in particular. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

It is a very fair question on journey times. Ironically, it has to be said, it comes after a debate about the benefits of remote hearings and so on, although admittedly that was in the context of the coronial courts. However, in terms of local justice, travel needs for victims and so on, it was a perfectly good point.

On the contrary, however, with these measures, greater flexibility in the allocation of resources will increase the opportunities for ensuring that cases are dealt with fairly and efficiently in the most appropriate location for the individual case. This may be at the location closest to the victim and witnesses, or indeed at a location far enough away from a specific area that causes fear for a victim or witness. Basically, there is more flexibility because we move out of, as it were, the statutory defined geography. That is very much our intention.

Clause 42 will help to create a more unified and flexible court system, by removing the requirement that magistrates court systems in England and Wales are divided into separate local justice areas. The boundaries between local justice areas currently restrict both work and magistrates themselves from being moved easily between courts in different local justice areas. Changes to the court estate and transport infrastructure mean that the court within a local justice area may no longer be the nearest or easiest court for court users to travel to. Consequently, cases are not always heard at the earliest opportunity or at the most convenient court location. Court staff are frustrated that they cannot cut waiting times for court users by transferring cases to a court in a nearby local justice area with an earlier listing date. Removing those restrictions will give courts greater flexibility to ensure that cases are dealt with quickly and in the most appropriate location.

This provision will enable the creation of a single magistracy and a new set of principles for deciding how work and magistrates are allocated. Proximity between the courthouse and the offence will remain the primary consideration, but it will allow the taking into account of other factors, such as convenience for victims and witnesses or the relative speed at which a trial can be arranged. That is of course very important in the current context, in which we have to be frank and open about the challenge of dealing with the backlog. Magistrates will still be assigned to a home court, and ensuring that that is as close to where they live as possible will remain an important consideration. However, they will have the flexibility to sit in other courts should they wish to and should the need arise.

This provision will require putting in place the replacement organisation and leadership arrangements and a great number of minor consequential amendments to legislation to remove and replace references to “local justice areas”. The amendments will be made by an affirmative resolution statutory instrument where any primary legislation is to be amended, so Parliament will be able to scrutinise the legislation. The removal of local justice areas will provide the courts with the freedom and flexibility to manage their case loads more effectively, and will ensure that cases are dealt with efficiently in the most appropriate location, reducing delays and inconvenience for court users.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

As the Minister began speaking, I thought, “This is another provision of the Bill I don’t agree with,” but as he went on, I became, once again, reassured.

One of the greatest mistakes that we have made in recent years is the closure of local magistrates courts. When I was the first Member of Parliament for South Holland and The Deepings, which was not in the mists of time, contrary to what the hon. Member for Stockton North implied a few moments ago, we had a local tax office, a local driving test centre, a local magistrates court and all kinds of other facilities rooted in communities. Over the succeeding years, those things have been stripped out—a huge error by successive Governments. Community is fundamentally important to the sense of worth and value and the connection between communities; and local justice is a really important part of that.

The Minister will know that the tradition of magistrates—in fact, the essence of the magistracy—was that these were people sitting in their locality, exercising justice about their locality. I was reassured when he said that magistrates would continue to be linked to a locality, but would have the freedom, the opportunity, to travel further. He also emphasised that convenience for victims and others—witnesses and suchlike—would be at the heart of the change. He has reassured us once again and persuaded me that what I thought initially might be a poisonous idea is actually anything but.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He will know that the origin of local justice areas—I believe—was in the petty sessions, which was the previous way of organising. There is considerable history here. What we are looking for is more efficiency but, as my right hon. Friend says, to balance that against maintaining the local link. I think we can have that balance. For very good reasons that touch on crucial matters about where we are with our justice system, we have to have a more efficient system. It is frustrating if a case cannot be moved from one magistrates court to another, when it should be moved, because of arbitrary geographic boundaries. That is why we are bringing in the measures, and I urge the Committee to support clause 42 standing part of the Bill.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I was going to make another intervention, but the Minister has concluded his speech, so I have a chance to amplify my point at rather greater length. I wonder whether my hon. Friend, mindful of what I just said, would allow us here, as a group, to begin a campaign to reopen some local magistrates courts. Why on earth would we not want to do that? Why do we assume that there is a single destination, some predefined place, to which we are all headed? We have heard the nonsense about progress once or twice during our deliberations as if somehow we are just acting out a script, but history is not predetermined. We are not fascists or Marxists who think that there is a great plan and we are all mere players performing, so let us have some more local magistrates courts, in the spirit of this provision of the Bill. The additional freedom and flexibility that my hon. Friend described seems to be welcome. However, I think that there are several localities where justice is exercised a very long way from local people. That is particularly true in rural areas, such as the one I represent. In rural Britain, let us take advantage of our 80-seat majority and do something boldly imaginative.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

First, I want to reassure the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that I could never refer to him as an old man because he is, in fact, three years my junior. The Minister heard my points and those made by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about local magistracy. It is very important and I am supportive of that. Hartlepool is one of the better examples of a court that could be operating. It is sitting there doing nothing, yet we still have real issues on Teesside.

I am pleased that the Minister engaged with MPs who were or had been magistrates, and I am disappointed that others did not attend. I have never been a magistrate and, believe me, I would not want to be one. It is a difficult job and I would not want the level of responsibility they have on a day-to-day basis. Like the Minister, I pay tribute to them.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice) 3:45 pm, 18th November 2021

I concur. Being a magistrate is a difficult and important job and we should always remember that magistrates are volunteers. As far as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings is concerned, it was appropriate for me not to give way so that I could give him the opportunity to festoon us again with one of his oratorial masterpieces, albeit relatively micro in the context of some of his recent performances. My right hon. Friend was petitioning to avoid either being trapped into Marxism or anarcho-fascism, I think it was. I hope that is not the direction we are taking.

On magistrates courts and other courts, we must look at what is happening in practice. I do not know the facts on Hartlepool. I enjoyed my visit there, not least the result obtained in electing a brilliant new Member to this place. However, on Monday, I visited Loughborough, where we are opening a brand new courtroom in the magistrates court. That is no minor detail. The courtroom cost £2.5 million and it is there for a good reason. With social distancing, the hardest cases of all to dispose of are some of the most serious: multi-defendant cases. The case that was to be heard the day I went there was a nine-handed murder; that is, nine defendants. They are generally gangland-related cases.

We have opened another super-court in Manchester, so we are opening courtrooms. We have invested in Nightingale courts and, crucially, we have brought courtrooms on existing estates back into use by easing social distancing restrictions. I recently visited Snaresbrook, which is one of the largest courts in the whole of Europe, where rooms are being brought back into use.

One reason why we have not been able to use as many rooms is that with social distancing restrictions and particularly with multiple defendants—but even in small rooms with a jury—we have had to use entire courtrooms as jury deliberation rooms, as is the case in Birmingham Crown court. The impact has been huge and that is why we have been opening new rooms where appropriate and where it has helped us reduce the backlog. I have gone through the detail of the clause. It is an important measure; it balances localism with flexibility and, therefore, the greater efficiency we seek if we are to address the backlog and improve the day-to-day experience of our constituents in the courts.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 42 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.