“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.