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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.