Crumbling Britain: The quiet decline of English courts

Austerity cuts by the Ministry of Justice have led to the closure of 230 crown, county and magistrates’ courts since 2010, such as Buxton’s. 

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Visit Buxton on a summer’s afternoon and it seems a place that wants for little. On a warm Thursday in June, the highest market town in England, nestled more than 1,000 feet above sea level on the fringe of Derbyshire’s Peak District, plays host to a sight seldom seen in the provinces: a busy high street.

Coach parties pour in. Builders renovating Buxton’s imposing Crescent, the Georgian spa complex that distinguished the town, enjoy fish and chips, and cigarettes in the afternoon heat. As much as £50m has been spent restoring the Grade I listed building.

But as private investment flows into Buxton’s tourist trade, the well of state funding for those that live here is running dry. Local schools face £2m in cuts. Several wards at the Cavendish Hospital – named after the Duke of Devonshire, whose largesse built this handsome spa town – have been closed or downsized. Police numbers are falling. The town’s custody cells could soon face the same fate as its magistrates’ court, shut by central government in spite of local opposition in 2016.

Cuts by the Ministry of Justice – and its euphemistically named courts modernisation programme – have led to the closure of 230 crown, county and magistrates’ courts since 2010. Cases that were once heard in the two courtrooms at Buxton’s High Peak Magistrates’, part of a council-owned building on the brow of a steep hill in the town centre, are now notionally split between Stockport, 18 miles away in Greater Manchester, and Chesterfield, 25 miles to the east. In practice, they are now almost all heard at the latter and sometimes at Derby, 35 miles away.

It is an arduous system for those who rely on public transport. In Buxton’s Victorian heyday, John Ruskin was moved to polemic by the extensive railway connections across the Derbyshire dales. “The valley is gone, and the gods with it,” he wrote about the construction of a viaduct across the nearby River Wye in 1863. “And now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.”

Today, residents are not so lucky. Only one railway line, with a half-hourly service to Stockport and Manchester, remains. The rest of Derbyshire – including the courts in Chesterfield and Derby – is only accessible by road. County bus services have endured £3m in cuts since 2009. For vulnerable people trapped in the justice system, Ruskin’s valley has returned.

Discussion of austerity’s impact on access to justice concentrates largely on legal aid cuts (just 440 people received assistance in 2016/17 nationwide, a 99.5 per cent drop since 2012/13). But for Buxton and comparable towns, physical access is as great a problem. Only one bus from Buxton to Chesterfield arrives in time for the morning sitting, but its 7:30am departure is an impossible demand for single parents (the town also lost its family court).

A return ticket can cost as much as £20 – a large part of a week’s benefits. Domestic violence campaigners have warned Ruth George, the local Labour MP, that the paucity of services could lead to victims and perpetrators being trapped together on the same bus.

Some resort to desperate measures. Michael Hilton, a Buxton magistrate with more than 30 years’ experience, told me that in one case, a man cycled more than 32 miles from the nearby town of Whaley Bridge to Chesterfield to make the 9:30am start for his case. He had set off at 5am on a cold winter’s morning, only to be told his case would not be heard that day. Innocent parties are hit by the costs too, said Hilton, who campaigned against the closure of Buxton’s court. “Some of those [forced to travel] will be found not guilty, and some will be witnesses and victims – totally blameless people, seriously inconvenienced.”

The situation is hard to justify – though ministers have tried. They argue that falling crime rates and advances in technology, which in theory should allow for video hearings, mean fewer physical courts are needed.

The legal profession disagrees. Technology is not yet sophisticated enough to fill the gap. The sale of closed court buildings was meant to fund the new system but most were sold for little more than the average house price of £224,439 (the court in Buxton was leased to the Ministry of Justice by the local council at a nominal rent, meaning its closure raised no additional revenue). A mere £34m was raised from the sale of 126 premises. Yet the cost is more than financial. “Justice has become much more remote to the people,” Hilton told me, bemoaning how rarely local cases heard at Chesterfield and Derby are covered in the Buxton Advertiser, the town’s newspaper.

For Ruth George, who won her seat from the Conservatives last year, it exemplifies the decline of the public realm in rural areas. “Rural services are just being hollowed out. It’s always easier to cut services in rural areas. But when those cuts multiply, it has a much bigger knock-on effect.”

Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, warned that the net result could be fewer people attending hearings. “It’s far easier for someone to turn up to their local court than it is to go 40 minutes away. These are people who don’t want to be in court! The more difficult you make it for them to get there, the more likely it is that more of them will decide not to.”

It is a problem Hilton recognises from his work. “It’s public knowledge that many people turn up very late, because of the difficulties of travelling. Local papers have reported a large increase in arrest warrants issued for people just not turning up at court, which happened much more rarely at High Peak.”

But the battle is lost. “It’s hard for me to get too fired up,” Hilton said. “They are not going to reopen the court.”

Until technology can bridge the geographical gap, Buxton – and dozens of towns like it – will have to live with the consequences, imperceptible to the day-trippers. “It’s a loss that’s been felt, but largely quietly,” said George. “The people who are impacted are not the ones that complain to their MP.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. 

This article appears in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone