Opinion: Lib Dems believe in local policing; should they also support a return to local courts?

Birmingham Magistrates' Courts / Victoria Law CourtsOver the past two decades summary justice has been transformed in England and Wales. Part of the change has been a loss of local visibility for the justice system. The police and Crown Prosecution Service has acquired new authority to sentence those admitting to crimes through use of Conditional Cautions and the expansion of fixed penalty and exclusion notices. In this they have been aided by new powers gained by local authorities.

On the other hand, local magistrates’ courts have disappeared from many towns and the suburbs of our cities, creating newer larger court houses; the very opposite of local justice. As a magistrate for more than 20 years before becoming a Lib Dem County councillor in Oxfordshire in 2013 I have fought against these changes. There are now only three court houses in the whole of Oxfordshire; Oxford, Banbury and a small centre in Bicester. Witnesses, defendants and even the bench living in areas of the county such as Henley, Shrivenham or Goring face a long drive to a court house and even, if they don’t have their own transport, sometimes the need to share the same bus. This pattern is replicated across the country.

Since magistrates’ courts sole role these days is to deal with less serious offences and they only effectively deal with the question of bail for those headed to the crown court, the main reason for rampant centralisation is the need to save costs. Sadly, the number of crimes committed, and those subsequently detected, isn’t like a production line for making tins of baked beans and the same attitude to costs should not be applied to the justice system.

In my chapter for the Politeia pamphlet; ‘Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice’ I have argued strongly for a return to a more local court system to mirror the obvious case for local policing. Incurring little expense, we can have a courtroom in every community by converting existing public buildings to the few requirements of a summary justice courtroom. These local courts could supplement bigger centralised courts in dealing with minor offences such as traffic matters or anti-social behaviour.

Since writing the chapter, a further example of why local justice is important has emerged. Magistrates are now required to authorise surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Local benches are far more likely to know whether the application is justified than those magistrates that happen to be sitting in a central courthouse many miles away on the day an officer turns up to ask for authorisation.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Phil Beesley 22nd Sep '14 - 1:30pm

    Please carry on arguing your case, John Howson. The main direct costs of a magistrates’ court are the salaries and expenses of “staff” participants, rather than buildings. In the case of police and witnesses, attendance creates opportunity cost (ie they are not doing something else).

    If you believe in justice and genuinely saving money, the way to achieve both aims is to make courts efficient. That means assembling “staff”, solicitors, defendants and witnesses in one convenient place, punctually. Location should be convenient to all participants, whatever their roles. When the court is not local, you can forget about punctuality and efficiency.

  • As one who has worked in and around the Magistrates Courts system since the early 1960’s I have seen both worlds and unashamedly say it would be foolish to go backwards, the present system is okay and works as effectively as the old system ever did. One of our problems as human beings we tend to glorify the past, it was much better in my day etc etc, but was it? I would suggest this is yet another of those cases. An anecdote, I worked in a town where there were two courts, one for a County Borough, remember them and another for the surrounding County area/division. It meant two courts in two places two or three days a week, now there is one all in one place, it used to be chaotic, solicitors going from one court to another, Court staff split between the two places etc, etc, you can see the point. Please leave things as they are and lets get on with running the country, its economy and direction and sorting out this party, its leader and its self destruct button..

  • Ian Hurdley 23rd Sep '14 - 7:56am

    When a not guilty plea is entered,successful prosecutions depend on the attendance of witnesses. The greater the distance to travel, the more likely it is that witnesses will fail to attend.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Sep '14 - 9:44am

    With reference to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, should magistrates actually use their private knowledge when deciding a case? In what way are they “more likely to know” whether an application is justified?

    Shouldn’t the decision actually be based on the arguments and evidence presented to them, and on how well those arguments and evidence satisfy the requirements of the Regulation?

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