Our magistrates' courts are being decimated by cuts. The Tories should be ashamed of themselves

There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vu

“Can we go in there?" mumbles Chris, nodding towards a pokey private office. The 15-year-old speaks through an overcoat zipped up past his mouth. His eyes are puffy but alert, darting around the exposed waiting area in Willesden magistrates court. It’s choked and tense with people waiting for their cases to be called. Since this court has been merged in the cuts, it’s been heaving with young people from territories like Church Road, Stonebridge and Hendon. Rival gangs are afraid of being seen out of place. The threat of violence is real.

“I’m from Neasden but I obviously don’t come around here normally”, says Chris once the door is shut, “Anything could happen. People can make a phone call and get people down. I say I’m with my mum, I’m not going to fright you, but you get questions. I was outside (court) once and a group of guys got out of a cab and chased me down the street.”

Magistrates' courts don’t deal with high profile cases, but they matter. In fact they make judgements on 95 per cent of all criminal cases. Below national media attention, they focus on hearing and serving justice locally. They confront the dark underbelly of our communities, dealing with antisocial behaviour, gang crime, vandalism. Most distinctively, these judgements are made entirely by volunteers. The magistrates passing sentences are ordinary people from local communities taking responsibility. They learn as well as contribute. It’s a fantastic system, and now it’s being decimated.

Some 103 of our country’s 330 magistrates courts are now closing as a result of cuts. Many controversial closures like those in Woking and Harlow have already been boarded up. Barry court took the Ministry of Justice to judicial review, but they were over ridden. Surviving courts are now squeezing in the back log. The consequence is a tense and heaving system that is clogged and failing to deliver. The cost of rearranging cases is soaring. Bureaucracy is increasing. Witnesses are not turning up. Kids are taking more days off school. Justice is suffering.

Last week I wrote that the left needed to develop a narrative on what it wanted to preserve as well as change. Fighting to safeguard such important institutions - woven into the fabric of our history and local communities - is exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, municipal courts are in need of reform, but many are working. The appeal rate is a tiny 2 per cent. Their decisions are respected because they are owned. Compare that to the European Court, which we are prepared to defend despite people’s lack of loyalty to it, and the difference is striking. When it comes to protecting civil society, there is a consistent case for Labour to be conservative, and people need our help.

Michael Situ is the young legal advocate for Chris. Walking into court he’s besieged before he can start a day that will already finish late. A man in a blue hoodie is almost in tears because no one has turned up to represent him and he’s about to stand alone. Michael wants to help, but with cuts to legal aid on top of the extra cases from closed courts, it’s hard for his firm to even tread water. It’s not unusual for Michael to be advocating for six or seven people a day.

“You often find you’ve double booked yourself and you have something in two courts at once, so you’re just left praying one will finish early”, he says. “In the last month we’ve had six or seven trials that have been vacated because there’s just no space for them, and sometimes defendants are left without lawyers. It’s justice that suffers.”

Such decimation is a damning indictment on the Conservatives. With so much work being done by volunteers, our local justice system was an example of the Big Society at work, as the Magistrates Association points out. Its present woes are a particular indictment on Cameron, who is criticised by his own backbenchers for failing to know what’s worth protecting. Since HMCTS was faced with 25 per cent cuts, he’s been presiding over shortsighted savings that will come at great institutional cost in the long term.

“It’s already taking longer for some cases to come to court,” says John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates Association whose home town of Slough has gone from three courts to none, “Anecdotally we hear magistrates are issuing more warrants because people are less likely to turn up if they have to travel twenty or thirty miles for a trial… There’s also an obvious security issue, particularly in London.”

There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vulnerable. Chris’s mum is on benefits, but pays for taxis to go through areas she knows are dangerous for her son rather than risking public transport. She loses time looking for work and her son misses time off school to be ignored for hours in a crowded courtroom. At home her eleven-year-old daughter and two other children are alone. If they are getting into trouble, criminal or otherwise, she wouldn’t know about it.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

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Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.