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28 February 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Hard times on the bench

With one in four magistrates' courts shut down, justice is rotting at the foundations, reports Edwar

By Edward Howker

A 44-mile trek across the mountains of mid-Wales seems much less inviting than the guidebooks suggest when it is 6.30am and it’s January. As a result of the closure of his local magistrates’ court in Lampeter, Gary Day, of Talley near Llandeilo, had to undertake just such an expedition when he was summoned to Aberystwyth Magistrates’ Court to face charges of dishonestly obtaining music tapes and videos. As he didn’t own a car himself, and there was no direct public transport link, Day had to walk most of the way. He arrived at the court at 4pm and promptly fell asleep.

The magistrates who roused him were so impressed by his journey that they gave him a conditional discharge, and the female prosecutor gave him a lift home.

Day now leads a campaign to reopen his local court, which closed in 2000. Lampeter is one of 137 magistrates’ courts that have closed since 1996 – nearly one in four of the total.

Most courts have not been replaced, but some have been succeeded by “super courts”, designed to improve the efficiency of justice. And it is true that the time from arrest to sentencing has shrunk. But the new courthouses have been beset by problems. When one opened in Kidderminster in December 2001 it was noted that the £25m private finance initiative project had failed to provide locks on the doors. The new £30m court in Manchester has a glass atrium with palm trees, but it does not allow prison vans access to the secure area for prisoners.

Among the courts that have closed are Henley and Thame in South Oxfordshire, so that people charged in the area, and any witnesses to a crime, must travel 25 miles to Oxford. Last year, 20,721 trials across the UK required an additional listing because a defendant or witness was absent. It has become harder to recruit magistrates: there are 2,131 fewer than in 1999. Local newspapers such as the Henley Standard, which play a vital role in justice by reassuring communities that wrongdoers are dealt with, are not informed of relevant cases in faraway courts, so convictions often go unreported.

This is not the only respect in which the courts are facing a crisis. Legal aid – the bedrock of an accessible justice system – has been eroded dramatically. The charity Citizens Advice stated last year that 40 per cent of its bureaux were in “advice deserts”, unable to find legal aid advice for their clients. The number of legal aid firms has fallen over the past decade, from more than 11,000 to 4,361. The Law Society fears as many as 25 per cent of firms that were providing criminal legal aid in 2003 will not be doing so in 2008. For most, it is because legal aid is too bureaucratic and time-consuming to be worth the money.

The problem dates from 1999, when the Legal Services Commission and the Community Legal Service were formed to place more controls on practitioners. Each legal aid lawyer had to sign a 240-page contract and undergo cost-compliance auditing. The auditors, who are not often legally trained, generate the same feelings among lawyers as Ofsted inspectors do in teachers. One mistake in one document can cost a practice thousands of pounds.

Even as an exercise in controlling costs, the new legal aid system has failed. Since 1999 the cost of legal aid in the lower courts has risen from £370m to £645m. More accountability to central government has cost more money and delivered less justice.

The same charge could be levelled at the most expensive investment made in the court system: the Libra IT project, designed to improve court listings, locate defendants and track fines. It has been described by the chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, Edward Leigh, as “one of the worst PFI projects in the history of PFI”, which is quite an accolade. Conceived in 1996, it will have taken a decade to create – while its operating lifetime is meant to be less than eight years. When it is completed it will have cost more than £390m, or 230 per cent of its original budget. Meanwhile, court workers rely on technology that is nearly 20 years old. No wonder the percentage of fines and confiscation orders that are actually paid has fallen to 58 per cent of the total and £586m is now owed by convicted criminals to victims and the crown. (The courts minister, Chris Leslie, has recently created fines officers to improve collection rates.)

All these changes have taken their toll on the administration of justice. If people are to have confidence in the system, they must see it in action and feel that justice is being done – through the visibility of their local courts, the availability of legal aid and the confidence that fines will be paid.

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