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The slow death of British justice

 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 dart around the waiting area in Willesden magistrates’ court, north-west London. It’s choked with people waiting for cases to be called and the atmosphere is tense. Since budget cuts forced this court to merge with others near by, it’s been heaving with young people from rival gangs, from territories such as Church Road, Stonebridge and Hendon. 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 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. Although they mostly fall below the national media’s attention, they make judgments on more than 90 per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. Their focus is on serving justice locally. They confront the underbelly of our communities, dealing with antisocial behaviour, gang crime and vandalism. Most distinctively, their judgments 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, but it’s being dismembered.

Some 103 of our country’s 330 magistrates’ courts are closing as a result of cuts. Many, such as those in Woking and Harlow, have already been boarded up.

In Wales, Barry court took the Ministry of Justice to judicial review, but they were overridden in the high court. The surviving courts must deal with the backlog, and the result is a failing system. 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.

Defence campaign

With so much work being done by volunteers, our local justice system was an example of the Big Society at work. Its present woes are an indictment of the Tories and David Cameron in particular, who is criticised by his own backbenchers for failing to know what’s worth protecting. Cutting 25 per cent from the Courts and Tribunals Service budget is a short-sighted saving 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 [arrest] warrants because people are less likely to turn up if they have to travel 20 or 30 miles for a trial.”

This should be fertile ground for Labour. While the European Court of Human Rights, which has dominated recent headlines, is easily caricatured as unpopular, unaccountable and expensive, local magistrates’ courts are supported by volunteers, and boast an appeal rate of just 2 per cent. Yet although the left has always been good at knowing what it wants to change, in recent times it’s been less clear about what traditions and values it wants to protect. The Labour Party is predictably jumpy at the idea of being labelled “conservative”, but it does need a clearer idea of what it wants to conserve.

Take Michael Situ, the young legal advocate for Chris. Although he’s a dedicated Labour member, the party has done little to defend his work. As he walks into court, ready for a day that will almost certainly finish late, he is besieged. A man in a blue hoodie is almost in tears because no one has turned up to represent him and he’s about to face the magistrate alone. Situ 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 Situ to advocate 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 that one will finish early”, Situ says. “In the last month we’ve had six or seven trials that have been vacated [postponed] because there’s just no space for them, and sometimes defendants are left without lawyers.”

Back in Willesden, Chris’s mum continues to sit nervously with her son. She is on benefits, but still pays for taxis to go through areas she knows are dangerous for her son rather than risking public transport. There’s a horrible irony about a justice system that is supposed to make us safer leaving us more vulnerable. She loses time looking for work and Chris misses school to be ignored for hours in a crowded courtroom.

At home, her 11-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 the author of “Tangled Up In Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul” (Short Books, £8.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue