Burton Magistrates Court

– in Westminster Hall at 3:55 pm on 13th October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton 3:55 pm, 13th October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the proposed closure of Burton Magistrates’ Court.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope—it is the first time I have done so and is a great honour. I am grateful to the Minister for giving up her time to take part in the debate. My dealings on the subject to date have been with her ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Vara, who I must admit has been extremely positive in giving up his time to discuss the issue with me and other Members; I think he realises the importance of getting this right. However, my premise today is that we have got this very badly wrong.

I do not wish to be a deficit denier or to pretend that we do not need to reform our courts; in fact, I absolutely support reforming our court system to make it modern and applicable to the way we live our lives today, taking advantage of modern technology. I also recognise that in times of austerity, when we have to make the best use of taxpayers’ money, we have to look at innovative ways of providing services to our citizens. However, I have to say that in this case the Ministry has got it very badly wrong.

On 16 July, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service published its proposal for reforming the court system. The proposal contained a list of courts that the service believes are not providing

“appropriate value for…public money” due to either poor facilities or low use. I will argue strongly that neither of those is the case for Burton magistrates court. It was, however, one of the courts on the list, and its inclusion has shocked local residents. The court has a reputation as a thriving, efficient community asset providing access to local justice. In fact, my residents are so upset and concerned about the proposal that there is now a 2,000 signature petition against it. When there is such concern among our constituents that they sign a petition in such large numbers we must address it and consider why it has arisen.

As the Member of Parliament for Burton I was immediately concerned that Burton’s inclusion was a huge mistake. During the past two months I have undertaken a detailed examination of the Tribunals Service’s reasoning and the evidence it has provided, and have found a number of errors that seriously undermine the validity of the Department’s arguments.

Photo of Andrew Bingham Andrew Bingham Conservative, High Peak

I would have spoken in the debate, but it is only a 30-minute one, so I will settle for making an intervention. My hon. Friend is making a powerful point on behalf of Burton. I am here on behalf of Buxton court—there is only an r and an x between Burton and Buxton and when I saw the debate title I thought, “They have picked my court debate.” Does he agree that the consultation document on Buxton court in my constituency of High Peak is riddled with inaccuracies, errors, mistakes and inconsistencies that render it—I am sorry to have to say this—completely and utterly useless?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

While there might be a letter or two between my hon. Friend and I, there is nothing between us in our view of these consultations and the validity of the evidence they contain. They are riddled with mistakes; he is absolutely right. If the Minister and her colleague are to stick to their word, and if this consultation is to be based on fact and on evidence, they must reconsider the glaring inaccuracies in the proposals.

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Let me move on to the reasons why I think there are mistakes in the proposals for Burton. First, Burton magistrates court’s closure would require court users to make impossible or unreasonably lengthy journeys. The utilisation figures that the Tribunals Service has used to assess Burton magistrates court are incorrect. Burton magistrates court is, I believe, one of the best and most efficient in the country. According to the Tribunals Service’s own statistics, Burton magistrates court is performing better than the local and national average in terms of providing justice swiftly and effectively. The Tribunals Service has mischaracterised the quality of Burton’s facilities, which are much better than Cannock magistrates court, which is set to replace it.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Conservative, South Derbyshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As the people of South Derbyshire also use Burton magistrates court, will he assure me that in his strong defence of keeping the court open, he will bear in mind the importance of South Derbyshire folk’s not having to travel to Cannock, which would be utterly ludicrous?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and her strong support for this campaign. She, like me, understands the impact of this court closure on our constituents. It is true that closing Burton magistrates court would leave nowhere in the south-east of Staffordshire that is suitable for, for instance, family work, which I know she is particularly interested in.

Let us get down to the nitty-gritty of the facts that the Ministry of Justice is using to defend this proposed closure. The proposal contains travel times for each court. The Tribunals Service has included a chart detailing what percentage of people will have to travel 30 minutes, 60 minutes and so on. In order to work that information out, it is necessary to know where each individual is travelling to and from. In other words, it is necessary to know what the new local justice areas will be and where the replacement court will be. Of course, the new local justice areas are not established in the proposals. That information is not there, so the Department is sticking its finger in the air and guessing.

It transpires that many of the estimated times are completely inaccurate. The Tribunals Service has included estimated times from Burton magistrates court to each of the replacement courts. As the proposal itself admits, not everybody lives in Burton town centre. For instance, my constituents would have to travel into Burton town centre and then get another bus to the replacement court, which would add a considerable amount of time. For the purposes of today, I have worked out travel times simply from the centre of Burton, where the magistrates court is.

Let us look at the travel times we would be considering for my constituents to reach Cannock magistrates court. By car, it would be 45 to 55 minutes, but of course, only

52% of my constituents own a car. That means that almost half would be forced to use public transport. The Minister will be shocked to learn that we are talking about a travel time by bus of one hour and 56 minutes to get to Cannock, including two changes, and one hour and 53 minutes to return. That is a total travel time of three hours and 49 minutes. It is hard to see how that is access to local justice. By train, it is little better; it is one hour and 51 minutes to get there, including one change, and one hour and 49 minutes to return—a round trip of three hours and 40 minutes. That includes, importantly, a 60-minute walk time, because there is no other way of accessing the court. Derby, of course, is much quicker, with a total travel time of one hour and 32 minutes. The other proposal is to send court work to north Staffordshire justice centre, which is in Newcastle-under-Lyme. By car, that would be a 45-minute trip each way, but by bus, it would be three hours and eight minutes to get there and two hours and 57 minutes to get back.

Photo of Andrew Bingham Andrew Bingham Conservative, High Peak

This has an eerie ring of familiarity about it, because the document for my court in High Peak shows that 73% of public transport journeys for my constituents will take more than two hours. That is to Chesterfield, which is not practical. This is another example of inaccuracies and a lack of thinking in the consultation.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

I absolutely agree. When we are talking about a travel time to access a court that is as long as it would take me to fly to America, we certainly have a problem. I do not think the Minister has properly understood how she has been let down by the information contained in this document.

The document suggests that the Tribunals Service will use more video conferencing and that there will be new ways of working that will not require people to travel. However, I have spoken to the magistrates at Burton, the solicitors and everyone involved, and it is clear that in Burton only a small proportion of the work dealt with is amenable to video conferencing. It simply will not be possible to do that in the vast majority of the court cases that Burton deals with.

There is another point: court cases start at 10 am. It is absolutely impossible to get to Newcastle-under-Lyme for a 10 am court case. We understand that there is a requirement for the accused to attend court, but if there is physically no way for them to get there, what will be the consequence? Even more so, what will be the consequence for the witnesses? We already have a problem with court cases having to be delayed and adjourned because witnesses have not turned up. What will be the situation when we are expecting witnesses to give up six hours of their time just to get to and from court? It is simply unacceptable and unworkable, and the Minister must understand that.

Perhaps the most alarming statistic in the table is the 60 minutes of walking required of train users going to and from Cannock magistrates court. Even if one replaces part of that journey with a bus ride—costing an extra £4.20, I add—one would have to walk for 46 minutes, which is simply unrealistic for people with mobility issues. The significance of that cannot be overestimated. The Government’s proposal would make it impossible for a large section of the community—disabled people—to access justice, simply because they are physically incapable of reaching the location of their hearing. Under both domestic and European Union legislation, public authorities, including the Courts and Tribunals Service, are required to accommodate the reasonable needs of the disabled. How are we accommodating those needs if we are preventing these people from accessing the court system?

It is also important to remember that difficulties in reaching courts affect not only those involved in the proceedings but their families and the support that people might expect during the court case. Jane Garner, senior victim service manager at Victim Support Staffordshire, has pointed out that these people, who provide important support to all witnesses, will not have their travel expenses reimbursed and so will not be there.

Lastly, the fact that there are so few travel options between Burton and the replacement courts raises a serious concern in terms of victim and witness safety. It will not be uncommon for a defendant on bail and a victim to have to travel on the same public transport at the same time. As we have heard, no bus can get a person there for 10 o’clock. People will be forced to use the same bus—imagine the distress that would be caused if a victim has to spend an hour and a half on a bus with somebody who has assaulted or intimidated them. What are the implications for witness safety and the safety of the process? Intimidation of witnesses and victims must not be underestimated, and there is no way, under the proposal, that we can guarantee the safety of those victims and witnesses.

The Tribunals Service would require court users to travel for unreasonable lengths of time to arrive at their hearings. Moreover, the closure of Burton magistrates court would actively discriminate against those with mobility issues and raise massive safety questions as a result. That is serious enough, but the Department’s proposal is based on a completely false premise, which is the number of courtrooms that are available at Burton magistrates court. According to the Tribunals Service’s proposal, Burton magistrates court has four courtrooms, but that, I am sorry to say, is incorrect. Burton has three courtrooms and one advocates’ room, which, since the closure of Burton county court in 2013, has very occasionally been used as a spillover room for private proceedings. In fact, there is no sign for court four in the reception, because it is never used.

At 6 metres by 3.5 metres, the advocates’ room is little more than a glorified broom cupboard. It is not fit for purpose. Because of its size, parties are forced to sit uncomfortably close to each other, almost banging knees. That is particularly problematic in the kind of acrimonious family cases for which it is used. To make matters worse, the room has no security staff.

Unsurprisingly, the advocates’ room is only ever used as a last resort. From January to August this year, it was used for a total of 19 days: 15 days for family work, three days for matters relating to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and TV licensing, and one for tribunal services. That means that for 110 days—around 22 weeks—the advocates’ room was not being used for legal proceedings. In fact, the space is used so infrequently that it is not even registered or signposted.

As a result of that error, the Tribunals Service has made a serious miscalculation about court usage. It says that it is used to 51% of its capacity. I believe that after correcting this mistake, that court usage goes up to 68%, which would make it hugely efficient.

Things get worse, however. Burton court has suffered severe prejudice through the dates used to calculate usage figures. The statistics that the Ministry of Justice has used for its proposal were gathered between 1 April 2014—note the date: I believe that this must be some sort of April fool’s joke—and 31 March 2015. As the Minister knows, between October and December 2014, Burton’s police cells were undergoing refurbishment, meaning that much of the court’s normal custodial work was transferred to Cannock. Obviously, that has resulted in Burton’s usage figures being artificially depressed. When we put those things together, we see that the court is not operating at 51% capacity but at 68%—at least, I suggest.

Let us look at how Burton operates compared with other courts. We have heard that that is important. I raised the issue of the missing courtroom four with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire, who helpfully wrote back to say:

“You raise a concern regarding the size of Courtroom 4 and its inclusion…when calculating the utilisation of Burton Magistrates’ Court. Courtroom 4 has been used for hearings previously and continues to be available for suitable cases should it be required. Workload at Burton Magistrates’ Court is low overall, meaning that Courtroom 4 as the smaller of the four rooms is rarely used.”

As we have demonstrated, that is simply not the case, and I urge the Minister to take her staff who compiled this report into a darkened room and give them a talking to, because the facts do not fit what is being suggested.

Of course, utilisation figures are just one measure of how well a court is performing. To get a complete picture, it is necessary to compare such things as the time it takes to complete a case after it has been listed or the percentage of trials that prove ineffective. Fortunately, the Tribunals Service is already in possession of such data, which are published regularly as judicial oversight of magistrates court performance reports.

Those reports provide data on 10 different performance measures at the national, cluster and local justice area level, thereby offering a comprehensive insight into how well one region is doing. When we examine those data, we find that Burton magistrates court—being the only magistrates court in south-east Staffordshire, and that is, of course, important—ranks above the national average in seven out of 10 of the Tribunals Service’s measures. It is also above average in six out of 10 measures when compared with the Staffordshire and West Mercia cluster, which is, in itself, one of the best clusters in the country.

The primary purpose of any court is to provide justice swiftly and effectively. According to the statistics that I have outlined, Burton magistrates court does that more successfully than the vast majority of courts in England and Wales. Closing Burton magistrates court would therefore deprive the local area and the tribunals service itself of an incredibly valuable community asset.

Let us consider Burton magistrates court’s facilities. In his response to me on 15 September, the Minister said:

“I must highlight that the consultation proposal for Burton Magistrates’ Court is not based solely on the usage of the court. The court has no separate facilities for defence witnesses and there are a number of access issues for people with disabilities.”

Okay, so let us judge it on the basis of the information that the Minister has been given. First, take the issue of access. I have been to Burton magistrates court and I have spoken to the staff there. I have spoken to the magistrates and the solicitors who work there, and I have even spoken to disability groups in Burton. None of them believes that Burton magistrates court has any access issues whatever. All three courtrooms are entirely disability-friendly, including in the public areas. The proposal is simply wrong. There is even a lift in the court. The only exception is the witness box in court one, but that has never presented any issue in the past. Witnesses are permitted to give evidence under oath from anywhere in the courtroom, meaning that the problem does not exist. This is a straw man put up by the Department, desperately trying to defend its proposal to close the court, but it does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

Let us look at the lack of separate waiting facilities for defence witnesses. It is absolutely true that Burton does not, at the moment, have separate waiting facilities for defence witnesses. However, that could easily be resolved by converting the advocates’ room, or courtroom four—or the broom cupboard, as I like to call it—to make it available for that purpose. In fact, the advocates’ room is ideally situated for that purpose, as its location is away from the main body of the court and would ensure that defence witnesses felt very safe.

The other point that has been made in defence of the closure proposal is the lack of cell accommodation. Although it is true that Burton court does not have its own cell accommodation, it does have access to the state-of-the-art cells in the police station next door. Those cells are directly linked to Burton magistrates court through an underground tunnel, which emerges straight into the high-security dock in court one. Cell accommodation has been unavailable only twice in the past 15 years. The proposal is right to say that during the last closure for refurbishment the custodial work was moved to Cannock, but it is wrong in saying that that was a success. In fact, the move caused serious problems for court users, especially victims, witnesses and advocates, in terms of both unacceptable travel times, as we have heard, and expense.

The court and the police station have worked together for a very long time. Indeed, the tunnel between the courtroom and the police station allows anyone giving evidence—witnesses and the accused—to appear right in the dock. It is safe, it is secure and it works incredibly well. In fact, the police have such a good relationship with the court’s security service, GEOAmey, that they have granted GEOAmey a permanent work station within their facility. There is no reason why that should not continue.

If we look the facilities that Burton offers compared with those that the Ministry is claiming to keep open, they not only stand up to scrutiny, but they are better, safer and more fit for purpose. It is not possible to argue that Burton court should close due to inadequate facilities, when the court that is proposed to replace it has much worse facilities. The truth is that Burton court’s facilities are of a very high standard and do not in any way impede access to justice. That is what we are here for: to ensure that our constituents have access to justice.

A final implication relates to the family court. We recognise that it deals with people who are incredibly vulnerable. No other facilities in south-east Staffordshire could deal with family court work. It would be forced to go to Stoke and the facilities there are also not fit for purpose.

I have spoken for a long time and I am grateful, Sir David, for your leniency. I think you can understand that my constituents want me to defend Burton court and their right to justice. We have established the facts of the case, which are that Burton court should stay open. Its facilities are right, it has served the people and it is good value for money. All I ask is that the Minister looks at the facts, and bases her judgement on them. I am sure that that will lead her to the same conclusion as me: that Burton court must stay open.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister for Equalities (Department for Education), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:22 pm, 13th October 2015

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths on securing this important debate. I will ensure that his kind words about my colleague, the Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid, are passed on. He has asked me to emphasise again today that the consultation is genuine and that although it has now closed, no decision will be made until the responses to it have been carefully considered.

In the meantime, I very much welcome the opportunity to explore this important issue. I commend my hon. Friend on the diligent way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents in this matter. I understand many of his concerns about the proposal and the accuracy of the published document, and appreciate the hard work he has put into the matter. I know that he has corresponded with my ministerial colleagues and I assure him that where corrections are required, they will be made in the response document. We will of course consider all the points he has made today, alongside those he has already made, and all the other responses we have received, when we make a decision about the future of the court.

I would like to address directly a couple of issues, including the accuracy of the consultation document regarding courtroom four’s size and suitability for hearings. The courtroom is of a modest size, but it is suitable for a variety of judicial work and has been used for hearings in the past year. That it has not been used more often is more a reflection of the low workload at Burton magistrates court. Although courtroom three is larger than courtroom four, it is also used irregularly due to the low workload.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of access to justice for his constituents with particular reference to travel time. I agree that this is really important, but we would expect Burton court users’ cases to be heard at Derby, a journey time of 45 minutes by bus. However, we will analyse any information we receive relating to travel times in the consultation and ensure that the response reflects that analysis.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

I am sorry that the Minister’s officials are again giving her the wrong information. Her proposal says that my cases will go three ways: to Cannock, to Newcastle-under-Lyme and to Derby. Two thirds of cases will not go to Derby.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister for Equalities (Department for Education), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am sure that everything my hon. Friend says will be taken into consideration. We know that the world outside the courts is changing rapidly. We expect to be able to transact all our business online, quickly and efficiently, and at a time that suits. Justice must be accessible, with court users able to transact their court business efficiently at a time that suits them. We have a great opportunity to invest in our courts and to modernise them to meet the challenges of present and future requirements of court users and improve delivery.

In the consultation, we asked for suggestions about providing court services from an alternative local building and all those will be fully evaluated. We also want to change the way in which the public can access the courts. That does not have to take place by attending a conventional court building so we are exploring whether there are opportunities to hold hearings in local buildings. In addition, we have welcomed views on whether to establish video conferencing facilities and whether that would improve access to justice for victims, witnesses and court users. The proposals on the court estate in England and Wales must also be considered in the wider context of our ambitious plans to transform the way in which courts and tribunals operate and deliver services to the public.

As the Justice Secretary has said, reform of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient service. Many people encounter our justice system when they are at their most vulnerable, be they victim or witness. We must make better use of technology to provide easier access and a more responsive system with swifter processes and a more proportionate service.

As we know, front-line staff in the courts work very hard to provide a high quality service, but they often work against a backdrop of poor infrastructure and IT systems that are often inefficient, disjointed and based on old technology. We must respect the traditions of our court system, but recognise that court attendance is time consuming and often an inefficient process for everyone involved. A more proportionate approach to court attendance would eliminate wasted time and enhance confidence in the administration of justice. We have a duty to offer more convenient and less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system, which is what we intend to do while maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.

We need to invest to deliver those improvements and we will do so with care to ensure that taxpayers are funding investment in a sustainable and efficient system. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that the Government are facing tough decisions about how we spend limited public funds and we do not shy away from making these tough decisions, but the programme of reform on which the courts and tribunals are embarking is a remarkable opportunity to transform essential public services. It will result in delivery of quicker and fairer access to justice and a courts and tribunals system that better reflects the way the public access and use services today. It is important that we make the right decisions about investment and operate from a court estate that is sustainable and represents value for money.

As my hon. Friend said, the consultation has now closed and we will analyse the responses. He referred to the 2,000 signatures that have been collected in the local area and they will be taken into consideration. The Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid and the Lord Chancellor will consider all the difficult decisions about whether a court should close. As they do so, they will consider all the responses and the points that my hon. Friend has made in the debate today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the proposed closure of Burton Magistrates’ Court.