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 are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.