It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and I am grateful to have secured this debate. Reorganisation of the Courts Service will have a significant effect on the way in which justice is provided throughout the United Kingdom. I hope that this debate will provide an opportunity for hon. Members throughout the House-there is a healthy bias from Wales in the Chamber-to reflect on facilities that may be changing in their constituencies. Notwithstanding consultations, I am sure that the Minister will take note of the points raised this afternoon. In the spirit of constituency interests, I shall concentrate on the future of the magistrates court in Cardigan, and access to justice in Ceredigion and more generally in the rural communities that many of us serve.
The consultation document usefully sets out the distances involved in closing various courts, and the public transport implications for constituents. The alternatives to the magistrates court in Cardigan are Aberystwyth in the north of Ceredigion and Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. The consultation document states that Cardigan is 38 miles from Aberystwyth and 29 miles from Haverfordwest. They are further away than any of the alternative courts that are proposed for closure anywhere in Wales. The distances that people will be expected to travel are longer than any others on a long list in Wales.
However, there is optimism about the public transport alternatives, although my confidence in the public transport system is not shared by many of my constituents. Someone going to court in Aberystwyth in the morning would have to catch a bus from Cardigan at 7.20 am, and then face a significant walk from the bus stop. When referring to points on a map, we are talking not about A to B or B to A, but about vast geographic areas. We are talking not just about the people of Cardigan going to Aberystwyth, but about large communities-Aberporth, Llanarth, Llandysul-and huge swathes of west Wales. We are talking not about bus services and other transport links from Cardigan, but about those from outside. Rurality and public transport has largely been ignored in the consultation document to date. Many residents of the villages in south Ceredigion are simply unable to get to Aberystwyth or Haverfordwest in the morning by public transport.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that problems with public transport bear down particularly on those who are most vulnerable and who lead the most chaotic lives in society? The previous Government were happy to close down magistrates courts, including that at Trowbridge in my constituency. That argument may apply more to magistrates courts than to county courts, but it worries many of us that those who will be most disadvantaged by the closure programme are the most vulnerable in society.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. There is an underlying assumption that public transport is an add-on and that people can access court facilities in a private vehicle, but that does not apply to many of the people to whom he referred. They are completely reliant on public transport, and all too often it does not exist.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is talking about people on the periphery, and there is a double whammy because many facilities in Wales are drifting eastwards from areas such as those that he and I serve. Does he agree that the proposed local government cuts will impact on the transport system, which is already fragile in such areas, so there is a double whammy with the closure of justice centres and contraction of the transport system?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. I have tried to raise the same point over the past five years. For example, the bus subsidy grant from which many of my constituents have benefited has contracted over the past five years. Given the challenges to the public purse, that contraction looks set to continue. That is a worry, and I shall not deviate from that.
Access to justice is a key right for us all, and we will not be able to run the most economically efficient service without failing to provide the level of service required. That does not mean that we should never seek savings from the service or explore other ways of delivering a better service, but we must fully consider the impact of the loss of that service on the community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree that reducing the number of courts is all about savings, but all the research that I have looked at shows that the real waste in magistrates arises from an appreciable amount of non-attendance and people not being chased up for their fines. I do not understand how reducing the number of magistrates courts will improve non-attendance.
My hon. Friend draws our attention to a practical problem. Some of us are looking further ahead to ensuring that the magistrates court system serves people. We are discussing not short-term decisions, but a longer term view of the network that we want. The issue is valid.
I note that the consultation objectives include the commendable pledge to
"ensure the estate supports the challenges of rural access".
Having looked at the documentation, I contend-I suspect that others will share my view-that that is not the case. The problem of access is not unique to rural areas, but it is a huge problem, and will be detrimental to Cardigan and the surrounding area.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made the point about rural and non-rural areas. The Rhondda is not rural in one sense, because there is a conglomerated community and people live close to one another. However, if Llwynypia magistrates court disappears, the number of people who are unable or fail to attend court is likely to increase dramatically because they will have to travel all the way to Pontypridd. It is likely that many people, including the victims of crime, will not receive justice, and defendants may get off scot-free.
Order. We have had five interventions, each of which has been a wee bit longer than I expect interventions to be. If other hon. Members are tempted to intervene, perhaps they will be brief.
Thank you, Mr Hood. I congratulate Chris Bryant on his early-day motion 312, and prompted by the excellent research note, I have just signed it. He is right to make the point, but he will forgive me if I focus on the rural challenges. I am sure that he will make the point about urban communities. The problem involves the practicalities of living in rural communities and accessing services, but access to justice as a right is a much bigger picture. He mentions in his early-day motion victim support and the implications for that.
A constituent of mine, who is a justice of the peace, acknowledges that usage of Cardigan court is low, and that that is largely due to the facilities not being good enough to accommodate many cases because of under-investment over the years rather than lack of need. Custody cases cannot be heard because of a lack of suitable cells; special measures trials are difficult because of a lack of facilities; and the court is not compliant with disability discrimination legislation. If the villages south of Ceredigion and north of Pembrokeshire are included, he estimates a catchment area of nearly 40,000 people, which should surely be enough to justify a modern court building with the necessary facilities to hold a wide range of cases.
It is also crucial to remember that the closure will not only affect those individuals who will be denied convenient access to justice. Legal providers and witnesses will be forced to travel extra distances, which might be an added deterrent. If police officers are required to give evidence, those based in Cardigan will have an additional distance to travel. There is pressure on neighbourhood policing in rural areas. The areas are vast and, as Albert Owen will agree, there is a problem of resources. The pressures on police forces in rural areas look set to continue.
A concentration of court services away from rural areas could lead to the same trend in the availability of legal advice. People will have to travel to Aberystwyth to attend court, and they may have to travel to access legal advice. Even if that doomsday scenario is not reached, the closure will certainly have an impact on local providers of legal services.
I welcome the fact that the documentation contains a section on rural-proofing, but I fear that Cardigan is a long way from being rural-proofed. The standard of public transport is not adequate for the purposes suggested in the proposals. During a debate on court closures in Yorkshire that took place in Westminster Hall last week, the Minister stated:
"Recent improvements in transport and communication links mean that people can travel further in less time if they need to."-[Hansard, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 131WH.]
I am sure that that is true in many parts of the country, but it is not the case in west Wales where public transport has suffered over the past few years and, if anything, we have a less comprehensive service than that of several years ago.
I accept that there will always be local opposition to any change in the service, but I have been struck by how strongly people in Cardigan feel about this proposal, and the impact that it will have on the community both because of difficulties with public transport, and because of straightforward concern about lack of access to justice.
There is also an economic argument. Many of the court areas have solicitors' offices built around them. That is certainly the case in Llangefni in Anglesey. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that and does he agree that measures have already been put in place for legal providers to move to other courts, as has been highlighted?
I agree with the first point, which was the concern I raised earlier. Legal providers will move to the destination of the court, and that will leave a vacuum elsewhere. Many people will be concerned about the impact on areas that have high levels of deprivation. Cardigan contains the two most deprived wards in Ceredigion, Teifi and Rhydyfuwch, which are in the top 20% most deprived wards in Wales. In the community safety domain of the Wales index of multiple deprivation, which covers recorded crime, youth offenders, adult offenders and fire incidence, Cardigan's Teifi ward is in the top 5% of the most deprived wards in Wales. Consequently, Cardigan town council has written to me and to the Secretary of State expressing its concern at the proposals and raising many of the points that I have mentioned. The council was grateful and pleased that Cardigan has acquired a new police station with eight cells, but it feels that there should be a new court building adjacent to that police station.
There has been some suggestion that we should move towards a model that has group facilities and can achieve swift, community-based justice and make operational savings. The combination of facilities on a single site has many advantages, but I fear that sometimes the understandable drive for efficiency has clouded the vision of the best way to provide justice. Although we are not in a position to build many new facilities across the country, if we lose locations that provide a greater function to the justice system, there is a danger that we will never be able to implement that vision.
It has been suggested that Aberystwyth-38 miles north of Cardigan-is capable of taking on the extra work that would be necessitated by the closure of the court at Cardigan. The consultation points to the construction of a new justice centre in Aberystwyth, which I welcome, but the Minister will be well aware of the delays in that project after the collapse of the developers involved. Originally, the project was to have included a Crown court, with Aberystwyth serving as a mid-Wales hub for justice. Currently, the nearest Crown courts are in Carmarthen, Swansea and Welshpool.
And Dolgellau-I thank the hon. Gentleman for adding that to my list. There remains a case for a Crown court in Aberystwyth, even if the money is not currently available.
I have written to the Minister and his predecessor, Bridget Prentice, who I met. However, there is as yet little concrete information to report. As such, the closure of a magistrates court in Cardigan is predicated on a project that we hope will happen, but for which we have no time scale. I hope that that concern will be noted in the consultation.
The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser, which serves Cardigan and the surrounding area, has launched a campaign to save the court. One of its concerns is about the continuation of court reporting which, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is vital to our democracy. The newspaper does not have the resources to send reporters to Haverfordwest or Aberystwyth, and if the court closes, it will have to end its reports on Cardigan cases. That is not a justification for keeping the court, but it is an important point none the less.
Concerns have been raised about the decline of court reporting and the impact that that has on transparency. By and large that decline has been the result of newspapers deciding that it was not in their economic interest to cover court cases, but if the Government take decisions that will impact on public access to information about court proceedings, that factor should be considered.
Under the proposals, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire local justice areas are to be merged. I do not oppose that, as it seems to be a sensible extension of the collaborative work that is already taking place. However, I seek clarification from the Minister that justices of the peace would not be required to be on the bench for all courts within that larger area, as that could become unmanageable. The principle of the merger, however, has been accepted, and I hope that any issues of practicality can be resolved.
One of the justifications for the proposals is the cost. The reorganisation is expected to save about £15.3 million a year, and make a one-off saving of £21 million from backlog maintenance. Closing the court at Cardigan means a saving of £88,000 a year, as well as a saving of £85,000 from backlog maintenance. Although all savings are to be welcomed, those figures are relatively small-perhaps they will multiply as we hear from other hon. Members about their own areas. We must consider whether the savings provide value, and Ministers will have to decide whether the loss of the service is worth the savings that will be made. In Cardigan, I do not think that that is the case.
The Magistrates Association has noted that while the consultations are carried out, an advertisement has been placed for 30 district judges. That has caused understandable concern to lay magistrates. I would be grateful if the Minister would address that point and provide some reassurance to lay magistrates that their role in the justice system remains valued.
I appreciate that money can be saved from the Courts Service, and I appreciate the need to find savings across the Government. However, this decision is not about cutting budgets for a few years, but about depriving communities of a service for a generation if not longer. The Minister has rightly stated that the Government will be judged not on the amount of money spent but on the quality of justice provided. That is a fundamental principle. On that basis, has he considered the suggestion by the Magistrates Association to allow magistrates courts to do more, thereby ensuring that our courts are properly used and provide local access to justice?
The Government must make their decision based on the need for the service. There is good reason to reorganise the Courts Service, and consider which courts we want and need and which ones we do not. However, that must not be obscured by the search for savings in which all Ministers participate. These are crucial decisions that will shape the nature of justice in Ceredigion and the rest of the UK for many years. This service should not be decided on the basis of the bottom line.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and may I begin by congratulating Mr Williams on securing this vitally important debate? As many hon. Members will testify, the issue will have a major impact on a great number of our constituents. In my constituency, the proposed closures will be a hammer blow to the local area, eroding the connection between the local community and justice provided through the magistrates system. I have spoken to local residents and solicitors, and there is great concern. If the proposals go ahead, and the notion of justice being directly linked to the communities in which the crimes took place is lost, the entire ideal of fairness in our society is put at risk.
Looking at the detail of the proposals, I can only assume that the courts facing closure have been chosen completely at random. Any examination of the impact of the closures makes it clear that the suggestions are not practical, especially in my part of the world. One of the courts down for closure in my constituency is Llandovery. That certainly highlights the off-the-cuff approach that the UK Government have taken. Anyone with knowledge of the provision would have pointed out that the Llandovery service has been closed for some time. I can only hope that it was not the Ministry of Justice's intention to shut the town's library, which has been operating from the site for the past few years. [Interruption.] Well,I hope not.
However, what is deeply concerning is the lack of attention given to the impact of closing the main service in my constituency: Ammanford magistrates court. One justification given for shutting the court services in Llandovery, in the north of Carmarthenshire, was that people there could make the long journey to Ammanford. As someone who makes that journey by private means as part of my job as a Member of Parliament, I can attest to the fact that it can take close to an hour, even though the route is serviced by the main Swansea to Manchester trunk road.
The most recent round of closures will require people from the Llandovery, Cilycwm and Rhandirmwyn areas-some of the most isolated parts of Wales-to make an extended trip out of the constituency to Llanelli. For people who can call on private transport, that is difficult at the best of times, but for those who cannot, and with such poor public transport services in the county, it will be almost impossible for many people. We must also remember that the Government will be asking people to take on the additional expense of public transport or added petrol costs at a time when families are already making very difficult choices as a result of tightening family budgets.
The north of Carmarthenshire to Llanelli is not a natural public transport route, with only the Heart of Wales rail line providing a direct service. Those who have travelled on that beautiful rail track will know that the services are not regular enough to allow convenient travel to Llanelli. Trains run on the line at four-hour intervals, if my memory serves me correctly. In my constituency, that has an impact not only on those travelling great distances to Ammanford, but even on people in the surrounding Amman valley area. Closing Ammanford court will result in people in areas such as Brynamman, Garnant and Glanamman in the upper Amman valley having to catch several different buses, often with long waiting times between connections. The first direct bus from Ammanford to Llanelli does not arrive until 10.30 in the morning. My constituency would also be left without a single court.
I recently spoke to someone who plays an active role in the Courts Service in Carmarthenshire, who explained how one defendant had asked to be sent to jail as they did not consider it financially or physically possible to undertake community service in another part of the county due to the limited availability of public transport. There is certainly a strong case to be made that by closing those sites and expecting defendants, witnesses and court employees to travel further at great personal cost, we will inevitably end up with a situation in which the amount of time and effort spent on chasing individuals who do not turn up to court will rocket. That point echoes one made earlier. It could be counter-productive with regard to saving the public money. There is also the cost of the police having to go further to obtain warrants, leaving their beat, which would be a big blow for the town of Ammanford.
It is evident when considering Ammanford court in my constituency that the decision was made without evaluating the individual merits of the court. Over the past few years, £59,000 has been spent refurbishing the facility. It seems extraordinary that such a large amount of public money could be spent improving the court to make it-as I am told-a good-quality building and a state-of-the-art magistrates court, only for it to be closed without a second thought. That totally contradicts the mantra of value for money that is supposed to be at the heart of the proposals and the consultation.
This is not the first time that Ammanford court has faced the threat of closure. In the last round of closures, Ammanford was also on the hit list. Local magistrates and the local legal community believed that the recent investment in the court would safeguard its future and were very disappointed to see Ammanford in the consultation document. They are clearly very concerned about the Government's proposals. Albert Owen made an excellent point in that respect. The legal community in the town has set itself up around the court and there would be an effect on the economy if the court were to move.
The proposals would also create just one Carmarthenshire bench. The Dinefwr bench, which currently serves my constituency, covers one of the most concentrated areas of Welsh speakers in Wales and provides a fully bilingual service. Justice is therefore delivered in the language of choice of defendants. People are especially proud of the bilingual scheme; it is one of the foremost schemes in Wales. There are concerns that the loss of the Dinefwr bench could dilute that service. I seek assurances from the Minister today that if there is to be a unified Carmarthenshire bench, he will do his utmost to ensure that the bilingual service is fully maintained.
I strongly oppose the proposals, as they will have a hugely detrimental impact on community-based justice delivered by local magistrates. I urge the Minister to reconsider his proposals, especially in Carmarthenshire, where the negative impact of the closures will be felt throughout the county, especially among the most vulnerable in society. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I do not intend to take too long today, because I introduced a debate last week on the proposed closure of Goole and other courts, but there are one or two issues that I was not able to bring out in that debate that I would like to cover now.
I agree with the point repeated by Jonathan Edwards and originally made by Albert Owen. The legal community is often set up around the courts. The situation is exactly the same in Goole, where solicitors firms and the police station are attached to the court, to the point that there is a connecting tunnel and the services available in the police station are also available to the magistrates court. We have a legal quarter in Goole that is obviously threatened by the proposals.
Like some hon. Members who have spoken, I represent a largely rural constituency. The East Riding of Yorkshire council is the largest unitary authority in England, covering 1,000 square miles. The point I made last week was that we went through a reorganisation 10 years ago in the East Riding, which left us with four courts, including the one in the city of Hull: two in the centre of the East Riding and two at either extreme of the area, one in Goole and one in Bridlington. We are now in the strange situation that the court furthest away, in Goole, is the one under threat.
There has been an attempt to achieve efficiencies because the back-office functions are already centralised with Beverley. The biggest concern for me is that a large proportion of defendants who are dealt with in Goole are from the local area. We now have the strange situation-I repeat this point because it is important-in which defendants from the Goole area will have to travel to Beverley to access justice.
Research shows that it will take most people who want to travel by bus up to two hours to get to Beverley, involving a change of bus in Hull. Depending on the route that people follow, the least time that they can take is one hour and 25 minutes, but the more likely time, given how the timetables work, is one hour and 56 minutes to travel by public transport from Goole to Beverley. It is important to point out that there is no direct bus service. Services from other parts of the East Riding are unaffected by the proposals, but people in Goole who want to get to Beverley will have to travel via Hull, where there is already a magistrates court. I referred to that last week. We will have the strange situation of people who want to take the bus to Beverley magistrates court sitting on the bus, travelling past another magistrates court, in Hull, getting off the bus, waiting for a connection and then getting on a bus to Beverley. They will have to travel some 39 miles to access local justice.
That is a huge concern for the magistrates and for people in the Goole area. The risk, of course, is that people simply will not turn up. I would like to see some assessment from my hon. Friend the Minister and from the Ministry of Justice of how many cases or how many defendants or witnesses they expect to be affected by this move. In particular, how many are likely to choose not to attend?
I touched on the issue of the utilisation rate in my debate, but was not able to go into great detail. I followed it up with a written question to the Minister, which on the face of it may not have been particularly useful to my argument. That is perhaps a lesson learned for the future. I went back to the magistrates and asked for more clarification of the issue. There is quite a low utilisation rate for the courts in Goole, but that is because we have two courts-court 1 and court 2, which are taken together. Actually, the utilisation rate for court 1 is exceptionally high. The magistrates inform me that it is upwards of 70%-probably nearer 80%. We have a low utilisation rate for court 2 because not taken into account in that figure is the fact that the room is used for other meetings. It is a resource that supports the work in court 1. However, that does not come across in the utilisation rate. In the past, court 2 has been used by the commissioner for taxes, the Department for Transport and others.
I did not go into politics just to be against things; I also want to suggest possible solutions. One solution that I would like considered is bringing other services to Goole, possibly tribunals, so that we can make the system sustainable as we move forward.
I mentioned briefly last week the matter of deprivation. On some measures Goole is among the 10% most deprived areas of the country. We have the strange situation of people in the most deprived parts of the East Riding, which includes Goole, facing the longest trek to access justice and the most expense.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; that is where the biggest impact would be felt. I am sure he will make that clear during the consultation process, because it is a huge concern that the most deprived should feel the greatest impact.
I was about to say that despite the best efforts of the dynamic Conservative-run East Riding of Yorkshire council, Beverley still has some of the highest parking charges in the region. Even if people are fortunate enough to be able to get there by their own means, they will be faced with the prospect of having to pay significant parking charges.
I did not get the chance last week to talk about the county court that operates outside Goole. That, too, is proposed for closure, and its services are to be transferred to Doncaster. Yes, we have reasonable transport links with Doncaster, with direct bus or train services. However, no figures are given in the document on how much will be saved by closing Goole court. Although it operates as a courthouse for only one day a month, it provides a vital service. Once we lose it, people will be forced to travel to Doncaster. We will have people heading to Doncaster in south Yorkshire, and others having to travel 40 miles by public transport to Beverley.
Another aspect of the transport difficulties is the cost. It is proposed that a magistrates court in Guisborough in my constituency should be closed. The transport links go through the same villages, and it is highly likely that witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs will all be getting on the same bus when going to court, once it is moved to Middlesbrough or Darlington. Without a local court service, which they already have, that will happen more often.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The situation could be the same in many of our constituencies, and it is a matter for concern. Sadly, it is not dealt with in the consultation document.
I said that my area could be left with a justice black hole, as we will also be losing Selby magistrates court under the proposals. We should be genuine about wanting to see justice being delivered, but to some concern among Conservative Members the Justice Secretary has spoken of the need for more community sentencing. If we are trying to bring justice to the community, we will need local courts so that people can access it.
I do not wish to say much more, but one point that I made last week is worth making again. It falls outside the consultation criteria, but I make it with as much passion as I can. Despite Goole's history of being knocked for many things, over the past few years we have been trying to do something with our heritage. The courthouse at Goole, which is part of the police station next door, is a Victorian building. It is a fantastic building, and it forms a huge part of our local heritage. We are trying to preserve that heritage to draw people into Goole. We have more than the docks; we have some interesting heritage and history, but one of our oldest and best-maintained buildings faces an uncertain future. I know that will not be factored into the decision-making process, but it is important. We are keen to preserve our heritage, on which note I shall resume my seat.
Order. The Members who wrote to Mr Speaker requesting to speak in this debate have all spoken. Other Members have indicated to me that, if possible, they would like to speak. We have some time, but I intend to start the Front-Bench speeches at 3.30 pm. If the Members I call use their time wisely, we may be able to accommodate everyone who is interested in making a contribution.
I congratulate Mr Williams on securing this important debate. It is pleasing to see so many Members here, and many of them-I think six-are from Wales.
Two of the 156 courts to be closed are in my constituency-a county court in Rhyll and a magistrates court in Denby. I have been to a briefing with the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has given me an excellent note. I want to tease out some of the points it mentions as they relate to my constituency, and I have some specific questions for the Minister. However, my questions about the courts in my constituency apply to all the courts under threat of closure.
I said in an intervention that the court in Rhyll is located in the heart of the poorest ward of the 1,900 wards in Wales. Two other wards there are fourth and fifth in the league table of deprivation in Wales. The pre-consultation and consultation period for the closures is not sufficient; it finishes in September and most of it will take place over the holiday period. Will the Minister extend it so that full consultation can take place in those communities? I hope he will write to me, giving answers to my specific questions. I intend putting that information out in the community, giving people a reasonable time to give me feedback and for me to pass it on to the Minister. Will he review the time scale?
I have other specific questions. How many cases have been moved from the Rhyll and Denby courts to other courts over the past two or three years, and to which courts were they moved? The equality impact assessment in the public consultation document provides no assessment of the potential impact on users broken down by disability, gender, ethnicity, impact on families and-dare I say it?-social class. Who will be affected, and who will be adversely affected?
Will the Minister provide me with the number of cases heard annually in the last three financial years and how it compares to the national average? Will he provide me with the projections made by Her Majesty's Courts Service for the future caseload of those courts, and the utilisation figures for each court affected and each of the courtrooms in them? How many courtrooms are there in each of those courts, and how many courtrooms are currently in use?
Will the Minister tell me the number of cases disposed of in chambers over the last three years, and the breakdown of the number of staff in each of the courts affected by grade, by full and part-time working, and by disability, gender and race? Is it possible to have the court user surveys for the two courts affected in my constituency?
Has the maintenance backlog been included in the savings? If so, has finance been set aside, or is it merely sleight of hand? What were the maintenance costs for the buildings in Rhyll and Denby over the last three years, and has there been any refurbishment in the past 15 years? If work is to be transferred, what are the estimated refurbishment costs at the receiving courts? Which will be the receiving courts in my constituency? If the reason for closure is the state of the accommodation, has alternative accommodation been sought in Rhyll or Denby? If not, why not?
Those are the questions that I would like the Minister to answer, and I would appreciate him doing so as soon as possible. I can then pass the answers on to my constituents so that we can have full, proper and meaningful consultation about the proposed closures.
May I declare an interest as a former solicitor and a member of the Bar? I have practised in every one of the courts that are under threat in mid and north Wales and I can speak about the quality of those buildings and of the service available in them. I congratulate Mr Williams on securing the debate, and I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards and others who have spoken.
My theme is access to local justice. I am concerned about the proposed closure of Pwllheli magistrates court. I have the honour to represent one of the two largest constituencies in Wales in terms of geography; indeed, it is probably among the top five or 10 in the whole UK, stretching 100 miles from north to south and 90 miles from east to west. It currently has two magistrates courts, one of which is under threat, and that is an abysmal prospect for those with any notion of local justice.
I heard what the hon. Member for Ceredigion said about amalgamating magistrates court areas. I can assure him that people from Pembrokeshire will be required to travel all the way up to north Ceredigion; indeed, people are already doing that in the area that I represent. Consequently, justices of the peace are not putting their names forward for appointment, and good people who could do a decent, good job for their communities are not doing so. It is not a coincidence that we have an advert for 30 district judges. It is disturbing but true that the proposals will be one of the nails in the coffin of the lay magistracy, and we should not run away from that fact.
One thing about being in the House for a while is that one sometimes has a feeling of déjà vu. In the 1992 Parliament, the Blaenau Ffestiniog court in my constituency was threatened. We appealed, but, fortunately, a general election intervened, and there was then a new Minister. What came out of that process, however, was that closing the court offered a marginal saving of £11,000, but that did not take into account the added travelling time for solicitors, barristers, police, JPs, probation officers and, in youth cases, social service workers. When that was taken into account, there was no saving. What makes all this worse is that about £10,000 or £15,000 was spent on the building a few months ago to make it DDA-compliant, but it is now being shut down.
I hope that we have a proper consultation, and I echo all the questions that Chris Ruane has just asked. I also ask the Minister to tell me how many cases have been moved from Pwllheli magistrates in the past three years, where they ended up and how many hearings were involved. Why is it considered appropriate for one of the largest constituencies in Wales to have one magistrates court? For heaven's sake, it is ridiculous.
When I qualified back in the mists of time-in the mid-70s-there were six magistrates courts in Meirionnydd. Arguably, that might have been too many, but we now face the prospect of having just one magistrates court in a far larger area than the whole of Meirionnydd. I am deeply concerned.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents a large rural constituency. Does he find it paradoxical that new housing developments take place in rural constituencies such as ours, but that services are centralised in the cities and moved away from rural areas, with a total disregard for long-term population growth? That is the same long-term plan on which the consultation is premised.
That is absolutely right. That is contributing to rural poverty and to difficulties in obtaining services in rural areas, and we are talking in this debate about a service.
I am also concerned about the notion that somebody from Aberdaron in the west of my constituency can get to the proposed centre in Caernarfon by bus by 10 o'clock in the morning. I doubt whether that is possible, but if it were, there is the likely and plausible scenario that they will meet witnesses on that same bus. What happens next? Interference with justice, and perhaps even violence-I do not know. I am concerned about that. I hope that this is meant to be a proper consultation, but I have my doubts.
Albert Owen made a few points. It is proposed to close Llangefni magistrates court and Llangefni county court and to move things to Holyhead. The consultation document says that Holyhead is 20 miles away by bus. Curiously, although the magistrates court in Llangefni is opposite the county court-they are within yards of each other-the document tells us that it is 20.6 miles from the magistrates in Llangefni to the magistrates in Holyhead and that that costs £2.60 on the bus, but that it is 20 miles to Holyhead from across the road and costs 60p less on the same bus. I do not think that the documents are at all robust. We want proper, robust figures; we want the justification for these damaging closures. However, I end by saying that in my nearly 20 years in this place, I have not yet seen a serious consultation take place in August.
I congratulate Mr Williams on securing this important debate. Unlike Mr Llwyd, I believe that the consultation will be conducted in the right spirit. I am also sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be open to reasonable persuasion, and I make my remarks in that context. Equally, I understand that he, like all Ministers, needs to effect savings in the extremely difficult financial circumstances that we have inherited. Nevertheless, it is an important principle of law in this country that there should be equality before the law and that people should have equal access to justice, and it is access that chiefly concerns me.
In Trowbridge, the county town of Wiltshire, which is a very rural area, we have experience of court closures. Under the previous Administration, we had the closure of Trowbridge magistrates court, and I have to tell the Minister that that has not improved access to justice one bit. Although I fully accept that vulnerable groups are perhaps likely to be more disadvantaged in magistrates courts than in the county court system, because of the kinds of case that are heard in them, the same argument nevertheless applies to county courts. Some hon. Members will be surprised to learn that there are a large number of vulnerable and disadvantaged people in my constituency, and they will be disadvantaged by the closure of Trowbridge county court. I am concerned about them above all because they will be relatively disadvantaged in accessing justice, while others will have an advantage over them, which cannot be right.
The consultation document describes Trowbridge county court as underused, but that is not so. It is open five days a week, which is not necessarily the case for many of the courts under consideration. For example, it is used more than Bath, which is 12 miles away, and Salisbury, which is 30 miles away.
The proposals seem to rely on assumptions about the utility of video links, telephones and online services. I would counsel a bit of caution, however, because I have great experience of the health service, where plans have historically been put in place that rely on assumptions about developments and innovations that are, in fact, several years down the line. If the current proposals take effect, and we close court houses on the assumption that innovation would take up the slack in some way, we might be a little premature.
The proposals are driven by a need to update premises and to ensure that we comply with domestic and European legislation. That is all very well, but there is a dynamic between the need to upgrade and the need to maintain equal access to justice. We note that Lord Young is reviewing the impact of health and safety legislation, and many of his findings may be relevant to the debate. We have some experience in Wiltshire of the need to upgrade court houses. In Salisbury, a great palace of justice has been created, and its case was based on the need to upgrade premises. As a result, we lost Trowbridge magistrates court, disadvantaging my most disadvantaged constituents.
I genuinely hope that the consultation will be conducted with an open mind. Indeed, under the stewardship of my hon. Friend the Minister, I am confident that it will be. I am equally confident that he will see good sense and make sure that Trowbridge county court is removed from the list of the vulnerable.
I, too, congratulate Mr Williams on securing the debate, and on signing my early-day motion. Many hon. Members have specific concerns and have rightly advanced arguments about equality of access to justice in rural areas. As I was pointing out, my constituency in the Rhondda is not, properly speaking, rural, although we still have sheep parading down the streets most days of the week-mostly in an inconvenient way-and nearly every house is within half a mile of a farm. Those are very different farms from the ones in Surrey and other parts of the country, but nevertheless it feels to many people as if they need only lift their eyes to see the hills. The Rhondda feels like a rural community. More importantly, the communities there are valley communities, and the further one goes up the valley the less access there tends to be to larger shops or, for that matter, the services provided by national Government, the Welsh Assembly Government or local government. That is one of the problems driving depopulation at the top ends of some valleys, which may be very beautiful but none the less have economic problems. People rightly ask themselves, "Is someone just choosing to close us down?"
One of the very few national Government presences in the Rhondda now, other than the police, is the Llwynypia magistrates court. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has moved out many of its staff who worked in the Rhondda. In fact it has been moving them out of Pontypridd as well. My argument to the Government is that I of course fully understand that savings must be made-the Ministry of Justice must ensure that it operates justice in the most financially efficient way available, especially in these straitened financial circumstances-but there are two functions involved. The first is that of providing justice efficiently and effectively; however, the other is how to create links with every other aspect of government. If it feels as though whenever a choice must be made, the Government constantly choose to close offices in more peripheral communities, longer-term economic problems are effectively created in the areas concerned, and they will have to be rectified by another part of Government.
The classic instance is crime in the Rhondda. If we have a greater sense of deprivation and of the Rhondda being a place where people lived in the past, but where they should not bother to live in the future, because even the Government cannot be bothered to keep a magistrates court there, we will have greater problems with economic revival in the constituency, and that will lead to greater crime problems. In addition, the Rhondda is not an easy place to get around without a car, and many of my constituents cannot afford one-in particular the 13,000 pensioners. Because of that geography, with two valleys-some say a passport is needed to go from one to the other-it is already all too easy for defendants never to turn up at court. For that matter, it is pretty easy for witnesses to crimes not to bother to turn up. Consequently, magistrates court officials and the police spend vast amounts of time pursuing defendants who should have been at court on a certain day, to get them to make an appearance the following week. That is one of the most significant elements of the inefficiency in the present service. I am concerned that the problems will multiply if Llwynypia magistrates court, which has managed to improve its statistics dramatically in the past 10 years, is lost and the services are moved to Pontypridd a few miles down the road, which has some bus services and a train service from one half of the constituency but not the other. The police will again spend more time trying to force defendants and witnesses to go to the first court date, rather than a second or third. That will mean that fewer people will get justice.
The Rhondda is not a high-crime area. Sometimes, because of the way the valleys are often presented by the BBC and national newspapers-we are of interest only when there is a drugs death-people think that the level of criminality is high. That is not true. For the most part it is a safe area, and many people still leave their front doors open perfectly contentedly, because they know that. None the less, there are significant areas of crime, including domestic violence in particular. The local senior police officer recently told me that if he added together the domestic violence cases from the three constituencies around mine he would not get to the number of cases from my constituency. An important aspect of the work done in our magistrates court is getting justice in domestic violence cases, particularly in light of the steady growth in such violence that may go on in a household. My anxiety is that if people feel that such justice will be more distant and that it will not be as easy to get access to it, we shall be likely to bear down less on the domestic violence problems in the Rhondda.
I have one other concern. I remember the last attempt to close the Llwynypia magistrates court, which was under a Labour Government. I was then Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Falconer, who was trying to close it, and I managed to see that closure off-with the help of the present interim leader of the Labour party, who was ferocious in my support. A key argument, besides equality of access, in particular for some of the poorest communities in south Wales, was the investment that had already been made in the building. The question arose of how to ensure that witnesses could have secure access and a separate entrance, to prevent intimidation, which can happen all too easily in small, tight-knit communities; how to provide secure accommodation for complainants; and how to make the whole process of involvement with the court safe and secure. That is possible in part because the court is in a beautiful rural area, immediately next to the Glyncornel park, which has, as I am sure the Minister will know, the largest colony of Deptford pinks in the country. I am concerned that if the magistrates court closes there will be yet another building in the Rhondda to symbolise the retreat of the Government from areas in the valleys. The sense of that, especially given that the building is not far from the old powerhouse where the Tonypandy riots happened a hundred years ago this year, will feel emotionally to the people in the Rhondda as if something important has closed.
As a final point, I hope that the Minister will consider this as he proceeds: "More haste, less speed." We have seen in the past few weeks that trying to make cuts too fast, and therefore producing inaccurate lists that lead to further problems, not only causes more anxiety in communities than necessary, but makes people feel that the judgments being made are somewhat arbitrary. I hope that the Minister will extend the consultation period by a month so that more people can take part, not least because some of the professionals involved want to be able to arrive at a coherent policy. None of us wants to oppose for the sake of opposing-we understand the financial situation-but I hope that the Minister will postpone the cut-off date so that it does not feel quite so arbitrary as it may do now.
Hexham constituency used to have three magistrates courts and now we have only one. We are the second biggest constituency in England and, if Tynedale magistrates court goes, an area well in excess of 1,150 square miles will have no magistrates court whatsoever. I have great sympathy with Mr Llwyd, whose position is similar to mine. As a former practising member of the Bar I find the idea that that would work on a regular basis astonishing.
I am sorry, Mr Hood.
From many parts of the constituency there is no bus that would get me to Newcastle or Bedlington in the morning. The Government will clearly have to examine the way in which they look after rural services. Rural services and the rural economy must be reappraised. Many things have happened in the past, but I should not like the first step of this Government to be the immediate institution of a situation in which there is no magistrates court for 1,200 square miles.
I congratulate Mr Williams on securing this debate, which has been widely welcomed by Members from across the House. In particular, we have an extremely healthy representation of MPs from Wales, who are obviously concerned about this issue. The context of the debate is the truly massive programme of court closures that the Government announced by written ministerial statement on
"a draconian plan for the widespread closure of courts across England and Wales."
"Magistrates courts in England and Wales are to be severely reduced as part of the Government's cuts programme."
It is for the Minister to answer the points that have been raised during this debate, but I noted with interest the MPs who had things to say. Jonathan Edwards spoke, as did Andrew Percy, who has come back for a second go. My hon. Friend Chris Ruane made a contribution. Mr Llwyd, whose constituency name has changed, Dr Murrison, who is one of our English participants, and Guy Opperman also spoke.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
We believe that there are legitimate questions to be asked about the scale and the purpose of these proposals for court closures. They are unprecedented in size and scale, which in itself means that there are questions that must be asked. The previous court closure announcement, which was made while I was a Minister at the Ministry of Justice, concerned 20 courts rather than 157. Given the scale of the proposals, the Minister must offer an explanation and make a concerted effort to reassure people.
Let me be clear that we do not oppose, by any stretch of the imagination, all court closures regardless of the circumstances; that is not our position. As we all know, courts have their ancient origins in much smaller administrative areas than those that exist today and they originated at a time when travel costs, travel patterns and the practicalities of getting across long distances within a reasonable amount of time were all very different from what they are today. Although individual Members have raised particular local issues as they know them in their own areas, that is just a case of Members being good local representatives; it is for the Minister to deal with the issues in his consultation.
Courts were run locally in the late 19th and early 20th( )centuries and they continued to be organised locally until the formation of Her Majesty's Courts Service in 2005. Things now are very different from how they were in the past and that can mean that we need different ways of organising things.
As a party we are still committed, as we were in government, to providing local justice and access to local justice. However, it is equally important that there should be a modern court estate that is properly aligned to local needs and that court services should be provided not on an historical basis, but on the basis of what we need today. It is important for there to be efficiency in the court facilities and in the utilisation of the court estate. Therefore, it is appropriate that there should be reviews and that Ministers, as they come and go, examine the issue of how the estate should be utilised. There is no problem with that.
It is also important that our more modern ways of doing things in the courts should be reflected in how the courts are organised. These days, that must include the separation and protection of witnesses, to ensure that special measures, which are increasingly used in our courts, can be dealt with properly. There must also be proper access for disabled court users. All those matters must be examined. In my experience, value for money is and always has been an important consideration. I believe that the formation of Her Majesty's Courts Service in 2005 has allowed a better overall strategic grasp of the entire court estate.
As an Opposition, we do not oppose all court closures per se as a matter of principle. Some court closures are clearly justified. Indeed, courts have closed in numbers over the years to deal with both the historical legacies and the practical requirements of a modernising system. Some of those closures were locally determined by magistrates courts committees and some were nationally determined.
Research indicates that there were about 650 magistrates courts in the late 1970s. There are now about 335; the Minister will have the precise figure, although given the performance of the Secretary of State for Education in respect of marshalling lists, I hope that the Minister has had a close look at his. I am sure that he will have double-checked it.
I accept fully that in certain circumstances and for appropriate reasons, courts might have to close. That might also mean that new ones should open-indeed, we opened 23 new magistrates courts during the last Administration. Given the size and scale of the proposals, I also think that the closures should proceed, if the Minister decides that they should, only after extensive and genuine consultation. The proposals are a major acceleration of any previous court closure proposals introduced in the past few decades. It is incumbent on the Government to be clear that they are getting it right according to all the correct criteria.
Many Members who have contributed to this debate have called for a proper extension to the consultation so that most of it will not take place in August, when people might reasonably be expected to be on holiday. I hope that the Minister will respond to that request. I cannot see why there should be any objection, so he should consider it. The Department has issued an extensive consultation document. We have heard from some Members that it has apparent inaccuracies; obviously, they will take up that matter with the Department. I hope that the Minister will listen to the consultation. Otherwise, on today's showing, he is likely to incur the wrath of his own colleagues.
I notice that if one looks at local newspapers, the Government appear divided on the programme. Senior members of both parties in the governing coalition appear to oppose it when it applies to their own constituencies. Has the Parliamentary Under-Secretary spoken to the Solicitor-General lately? It appears that the Solicitor-General opposes the programme of closures, at least in so far as it affects Harborough in his constituency. There are proposals to close courts in Harborough, Coalville and Melton to save £300,000 a year. The local bench opposes it, and the Liberal Democrat group has launched a petition against it, which the Solicitor-General supports, in opposition to the Under-Secretary's proposals.
The Solicitor-General said to his local newspaper, the Harborough Mail:
"We need to gather a good evidence-based case to put in through the Ministry of Justice consultation process with a view to their realising what a mistake it would be to close Harborough's court...we need to organise and get the campaign rolling."
The hon. Lady, like me and other Ministers, has had to sit in this Chamber on many occasions and listen to the genuine representations of Labour Members critical of the local aspects of her proposals.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. However, I did not expect to read promises in local newspapers that members of my Government, bound by collective responsibility, would campaign against my proposals.
My view of ministerial and collective responsibility is that Ministers talk to each other behind the collective view of the Government if they want to make representations. They do not send press releases to their local newspapers.
I remember that also. The point is that collective responsibility is still a constitutional principle in this country, yet a senior Law Officer appears to be opposing an element of the Under-Secretary's proposals.
It is not only the Solicitor-General. The Deputy Leader of the House, Mr Heath, opposes his Government's proposal to close Frome magistrates court and has made that opposition clear to his local newspaper, the Frome and Somerset Standard. Mr Mitchell-a Cabinet Minister, no less-has also
"vowed to lead the fight to save a city magistrates' court", according to the Birmingham Mail. A swathe of newly elected Conservative Members also opposed the announced closures-we have heard from one or two of them today; more power to them-and the hon. Member for Ceredigion, who secured this debate, is also a member of a governing party. The Minister might have difficulty on his hands. He is in danger of starting a revolt among his Government supporters rivalling that created by the Secretary of State for Education. It will take some going, but he might get there.
How genuine is the consultation? A number of hon. Members have asked that question during this debate, partly because of the scale of the proposals, the speed with which they have been produced and the speed with which the Minister intends to proceed with them. How much is the announcement of a huge court closure programme driven by money alone, and by this Government's increasing dogma of slashing the size of the state-some might say for ideological reasons-at all costs?
The Justice Secretary made a speech on
"Obviously it would be nice, for historic reasons, if we could keep all of the old court buildings that we are used to across the country. But in these difficult times, an under-used and under-repaired courts estate is an extravagance we simply cannot afford. So we have identified the potential to make a one-off saving of £21 million and annual savings of £15.5 million in running and maintenance costs. These are savings we must make".
That smacks of a decision already taken and suggests that the consultations might be no more than window dressing. I am certainly not the only person who has raised that issue in this debate. The Justice Secretary has already determined the outcome:
"These are savings we must make".
Those savings depend on the closure of 40% of all remaining magistrates courts and 25% of our county courts.
We will be watching closely to see whether any of the Minister's proposals that we are discussing are not implemented. In the past, proposals to close courts have not all gone ahead. Some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have explained today that they saved courts from closure proposals, which showed a listening Government who were willing to change their mind. Will this Government be willing to change their mind, or will the Minister go ahead with all the proposed court closures? We will be watching to find out.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Justice Secretary should be suggesting that the fall in crime by one third during Labour's tenure in office-at least he accepts that it happened; the Home Secretary does not-had nothing to do with serious and dangerous offenders being locked up. Both the MOJ and Home Office budgets will be cut by between 25% and 40%, inevitably leading to a justice system that is less able to cope with the number of people involved in it.
We have concerns about whether the closure programme is merely a part of the overall attempt to reduce the size of the justice system generally. We fear so. The Under-Secretary will no doubt protest that it is no such thing, but let us see how many of the proposed closures do not proceed. That will be one litmus test by which we can determine whether my fears or the reassurances that he will no doubt give are accurate.
As well as those assurances, I seek a couple of other answers from the Minister about whether he is taking important matters into account. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant raised the issue of domestic violence. How many of the courts that the Minister proposes to close are problem-solving courts, domestic violence courts, community courts, mental health courts or drug courts? Has he considered that?
The previous Government planned to select and establish 128 domestic violence courts by 2011, and had reached 122 by the time of the general election. Domestic violence is a devastating and hidden crime. The courts that we set up brought together a range of aspects of the criminal justice system to ensure that that crime was tackled properly. It worked. Prosecutions have doubled in the past four years, with 72.5% of cases resulting in a successful prosecution. That is a great success.
What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to preserve the Courts Service's capacity to deliver such a difficult, problem-solving approach in the remaining court estate-however big that ends up being? What account is he taking of the need to preserve the excellent work that has been done, which has led to a joined-up and co-ordinated approach from all criminal justice agencies?
Finally, will the Minister give us some reassurances about the length of the consultation and say whether he will extend it? There is clearly a concern across all parties and among a wide range of Members that his swift announcement has provided too short a time to allow proper reassurance and proper consultation to take place.
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 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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 Chris Ruane to respond to his numerous questions, but I can assure him now that in our view the consultation period is adequate. 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.