On Wednesday an important Parliamentary debate took place in Westminster Hall allowing a few MPs to discuss how Justice is being denied to local people as a result of cost cutting and a failure to work in a creative manner. Sadly this debate that could so easily have taken place 10 years ago, and will probably be relevant in 10 years time is an indication of how inadequately successive Governments have been in breaking down historical structures and closed mind-sets in Whitehall. Although the debate focused on the closure of Magistrates Courts in Suffolk, the same issue apply to all areas of the UK outside of our largest cities. Historically magistrates would ride from one local community to another to determine who was innocent or guilty of crimes. As a result of this, the first magistrates Courts were built in locations a horseride apart. Sadly the decision to build fixed Court buildings led to a culture within the Criminal Justice System, that remains to this day. When I was Chair of the Surrey and Sussex Courts Board, it was clear that the idea of mobile Courts, or Courts that shared buildings with other users was something that the Ministry of Justice did not have the imagination to consider seriously. To their credit a great deal of work has been carried out to explore how technology can allow people in prison, and vulnerable people to give evidence from places of security and safety. However there is still a need for Justice to take place in communities where people live. There have been one or two experiments to create community Courts where various legal agencies are all based in the same place, however to date these have been costly affairs and only tried in large urban areas. It is clear that when the MOJ is proposing to close two of the three remaining Magistrates Court in a County of the size of Suffolk, down from the original 12 that a new way of thinking is needed. Recently Theresa May and her acolyte PCCs such as Katy Bourne in Sussex have been discussing the idea of the PCC role becoming a Commissioner for Blue Light Services, even though the Fire & Rescue Services already have local governance structures. Yet Courts and Prisons, that are clearly a much closer fit to the Crime Commissioner role, continue to be governed from Whitehall without any real accountability to local people.
We need a new way of thinking about services such as our Magistrates Courts. The debate on Wednesday cited that the Magistrates Courts in Bury is utilised for 39% of the time and has an annual running cost of £250,000. Clearly closing this Court will save money in the short term, however there are hidden costs for society if people are forced to travel further to experience justice and with some imagination there might be alternative uses to which some of our Courts could be put. If Magistrates Courts were re-engineered to allow other organisations to use the premises when the Courts did not need the space, there could be ways of off-setting the running costs, and this might allow the Courts to remain open. When Magistrates first took to their horses, they did not visit carefully designed Court houses, they used Inns, market squares and indeed any building they considered suitable. We need a new imaginative way of thinking about justice, and this is precisely what our PCCs should be doing, raising the debate locally, not focusing on the adrenalin rush that accompanies blue light events!