Senior magistrate criticises court closures in Wales
â€˜MoJ needs to fully take into account the reliance of court users on public transport', says Magistrates Association chair
Ongoing court closures in rural Wales frustrate the core principle of access to justice and risk disadvantaging communities where Welsh is the first spoken language, a senior magistrate has argued.
Speaking to Solicitors Journal, Sheena Jowett JP, deputy chairman of the Magistrates Association, said: ‘The impact of court closures in Wales is very significant with it falling heaviest in areas where many court users are rural.’ As an example, Jowett said the shuttering of Prestatyn Magistrates’ Court meant local residents of South Denbighshire would find it ‘impossible to get to alternative courts for 10am via public transport’.
‘This clearly frustrates the core principle of justice being accessible to all because the majority of defendants are reliant on public transport,’ she continued. ‘Closures have also meant that rural communities where Welsh is the first spoken language are compelled to attend court in predominantly English-speaking areas, running the risk of disadvantage.’
Speaking before the justice select committee last week, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, highlighted the problems faced by many rural areas where court closures will hit the hardest. Some 86 courts are to be shut across England and Wales as the government looks to raise funds towards modernising the courts and tribunal service.
Ten courts across Wales are to be closed, and of these seven have shut already, including the historic 250-year-old Camarthen Law Courts and the civil and family court in Neath and Port Talbot.
In November the Ministry of Justice’s permanent secretary, Richard Heaton, dismissed a recommendation by the justice committee chair, Bob Neill MP, that at least 90 per cent of court users should be able to reach the nearest magistrates’ court venue by public transport within one hour. Government figures, displayed in a Law Society infographic, highlighted that none of the areas affected by the closures could achieve this.
In a letter to Neill, Heaton wrote: ‘The ministry does not apply a specific maximum travel time when considering changes to its estate. Access to justice is not just about proximity to a court.’
In what could be seen as a stern riposte to Heaton’s letter, Malcolm Richardson JP, chairman of the MA, told Solicitors Journal the MoJ needed to do more: ‘The Ministry of Justice needs to fully take into account the reliance of court users on public transport, defendants especially. This may even include civil servants digging out their stopwatches on trains and buses.’
The impact of the closures has been felt by magistrates too. Earlier this week, Richardson told the Guardian that the court closures and ongoing justice cuts had led to a ‘considerable’ number of resignations. Expanding on comments for Solicitors Journal, he said ‘there can be little doubt that court closures play a part in resignations, as the linkage between magistrates and the local communities they seek to serve is diluted’.
In February, magistrate Richard Goodridge quit ahead of the closure of Camarthen Law Courts. He told the BBC: ‘If you look back at the history of the Magna Carta, the whole purpose of the magistrates’ courts was that people would be tried by their peers within the locality.
‘I don’t have a car and I don’t want to travel on the bus or the train to Llanelli and risk sitting in front of somebody whose case I will be hearing,’ he added. ‘There will be cases where witnesses are standing on the same train platform as the people they are giving evidence against and that can’t fail but have an impact for justice.’
Should the resignations continue there will be increased pressure on recruitment for an ageing magistracy. In October the justice committee, in consultation with the senior judiciary, called upon the MoJ to carry out a workforce planning exercise and to create a kitemark scheme that recognises and rewards employers who support the magistracy.
The report also concluded that having a large cohort of magistrates approaching the age of retirement presented a great opportunity to promote diversity among those who are recruited to replace them.
However, Richardson told Solicitors Journal that the primary focus should be on encouraging employers to release their staff. ‘Despite what some say, the magistracy is a diverse institution. But what it lacks are more people of working age sitting on the bench, from twenty-somethings upwards,’ he said. ‘That’s why recruitment is so important and we believe the Ministry of Justice needs to work with employers to more easily facilitate the role through flexible working.’
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal