Raw sewage at Snaresbrook, lights falling onto counsel’s row at Sheffield, the lift out of order for the best part of a year at St Albans: reports of malfunctioning court premises come thick and fast. Court users are subjected to conditions that would surely fail the most basic health and safety checks: no heating (leaving jurors listening to evidence in their coats), no air conditioning in the height of summer, toilets and sinks (indefinitely) out of order, court restaurants closed and broom cupboards masquerading as robing rooms. Such is the state of our courts throughout the country. Vast amounts of money is wasted as courts close for emergency repairs. This is compounded by the multitude of magistrates’ courts that have shut down and been sold off over the last 20 years leaving the poorest and most vulnerable having to travel further and further away from their locality in order to access the justice system.

Being a member of a jury is a crucial means of participating in a democratic society. The juror who encounters sewage or water seeping through a collapsed ceiling may well wonder how the criminal justice system has been left to literally fall apart. Such situations not only erode a sense of national pride but also create a climate of national embarrassment. The knock-on effect must lead on to voter resentment and apathy.

In my opinion, successive governments have treated the Bar, judiciary and the staff who assist us with contempt. They do not care about our inhumane working conditions. They are wrong to treat all of us who use our courts in this fashion. Politicians are increasingly out-of-touch and assume that, unlike the NHS and schools, there are no votes in the administration of justice. I believe this attitude to be politically naive. Giving the country back a fully functioning court estate with decent conditions would have the electorate’s wholehearted support.

The future

Whilst the Bar should fully embrace technology, I believe that the profession should resist the onset of online courts. Justice needs to be both seen and heard to be done. As for rectifying our dilapidated courts, the obvious answer is that substantial investment is desperately needed (always easier said than done). However, just as important would be for the administration of justice to be dealt with on a local level. Power and budgets could be devolved from the monolithic Ministry of Justice and given to the regions. The main argument for centralisation – maintaining a consistent national standard – has long been lost. Localisation gives a greater chance of money being spent wisely, creating growth and opportunities for communities.

"The juror who encounters sewage or water seeping through a collapsed ceiling might well wonder how the criminal justice system has been left to literally fall apart."

For example, local tradespeople could be used for the upkeep of courts. Civil servants may argue that this is incompatible with the current public procurement regime; if so, there is nothing to stop the rules being changed. Charities, such as the Hope Centre at Northampton Crown Court that provides work opportunities to help people escape homelessness and poverty, should be given more of a chance of making a success of providing catering facilities. People ‘closer to the ground’ will have knowledge of where there is space available in local authority buildings that could be used for administration purposes and extra court capacity. However, given the sclerosis that Brexit has caused even if there is the political will, change may be very slow in coming.

My own belief is that the Bar should issue a set of minimum working standards; the message being clear that if the courts are not fit to work in, then we will not work in them. Such a stance may act as a quick anticoagulant.

The moral argument for fixing our courts is irrefutable. Doing so will bring unexpected benefits such as a national feeling of wellbeing and increased use of local communities that could lead to the saving of money. There may even votes to be had. Can we fix it? Yes, we must.

Court closures and the cost of losing local justice

The idea of living in the converted entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court would surprise most lawyers. It used to be a sad place. Chewing gum used to cling to the floor, tackily collecting a thousand stories. The waiting-area seats groaned whenever a defendant rose to tell the local magistrates why he had stolen the bicycle, punched the man or skipped his railway fare. The graffiti in the toilet documented the rights and wrongs of many stories and sub-plots. Defendants, victims and their respective families filed in to see justice being dispensed, case by case, crime by crime. It was the turnstile of local justice.

Living in a converted magistrates’ court is not cheap. In 2017, the going rate was around £1.4 million. ‘Be the judge of this three-bedroom home’ quipped a property article, ‘sleep in what used to be the grand entrance hall of Acton Magistrates’ Court’. The chewing gum has, presumably, been replaced by a ‘rooftop terrace and steam room’. It looks happier now.

Acton might be at the start of the alphabet, but she is not alone in her dramatic makeover. Brentford Magistrates’ Court is now a luxury building that retained the cell area for trendy bicycle storage. Old Street Magistrates’ Court is a fancy hotel where you can ‘have a tipple’ in the spot the Kray brothers once stood. Time and again the sites of local, gritty justice have been transformed into luxe properties with corresponding price tags.

Recent figures reveal half of all magistrates’ courts have closed since 2010. Those pursuing local justice are increasingly finding that it is not very local at all. Courts are being consolidated and warehoused into larger centres spread out across the country. Community justice now needs to hitch a ride to the next town.

The benefits of justice being dispensed within a local community are keenly felt by those involved. For better or for worse, defendants can sometimes lead difficult, chaotic lives. Someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs is unlikely to make a cross-county trip by 9.30am. Someone dependent on state benefits might not prioritise a peak train ticket to their court hearing if they are budgeting to feed their children. Their delays will cost society money. It might cost complainants and witnesses their time and a considerable amount of anxiety. If a defendant does not turn up at all then stretched police resources may be diverted to locate them. The community suffers.

Victims and witnesses might also struggle to make an expensive, time-consuming trip to a far-flung court. Those with childcare or employment responsibilities might not be able to spare an entire day to give evidence for twenty minutes. In some areas, the additional distance may cause witnesses a real discomfort and unease. There have been suggestions that some courts are so poorly served by public transport that witnesses and defendants could end up inappropriately travelling together on the same bus.

The benefits of local justice are clear in the day-to-day running of our courts. In some local cases, police officers still attend bail hearings. Put simply, they know their beat. They know the shortcut alleyway behind the pub, the road that is notorious for teenage car racing, the park where trouble brews. Their local knowledge helps to improve the practical decisions of the courts and to keep society safe.

The neighbourhood officer joins a long list of local benefits. Youth defendants attending a courthouse in their community can go back to school or college after their hearing. That preserves a shred of stability during a chaotic time. Probation officers sometimes know repeat offenders from earlier court orders or programmes. That helps with continuity of services including mental health, drug and alcohol treatment – often being coordinated by a GP down the road. Magistrates themselves are regularly drawn from the immediate geographic area. A community problem emerging at a particular football stadium, pub, school or street then attracts a consistent approach and a local focus.

Our justice system will be immeasurably poorer by the aggressive, short-sighted contraction of our court estate. Local knowledge, neighbourhood agencies and community justice have been gambled for large court centres making rulings from afar. The inevitable delays will waste public money. Complainants and witnesses will be inconvenienced. Police officers will be stretched. Decisions will be made in far-removed buildings distanced (in more ways than one) from the real crime on our streets.

The next time an advertisement surfaces for a luxury converted ‘courthouse’ we ought to remember the real value of community justice and how much losing local courts might cost us all.

Joanna Hardy, Red Lion Chambers

This article first appeared as a guest post on thesecretbarrister.com

The big sell off

Between 2010 and 2018:

  • 162 magistrates’ courts were closed, out of 323 (50%).
  • 150 constituencies contained a magistrates’ court which closed, with 12 containing two courts which closed.
  • The sale of court buildings raised around £223 million for the public purse.
  • The South East saw the most magistrates’ court closures (25), followed by Wales and the North West (22 each).

How much did your local ex-court raise? Find out here.
Source: Commons Library

‘Complaints about silly and sometimes humiliating searches at certain magistrates’ courts continue to come in. The perfume bottles which get confiscated aren’t offensive weapons in disguise. They are bottles of perfume. The fork seized from a barrister at Ipswich was for his lunch not his opponent. The nonsense with tampons and sanitary towels has nothing whatsoever to do with security. It is just nonsense. The sooner we have ID cards rolled out everywhere the better.’ Chris Henley QC, CBA Monday Message, 25/03/19. Watch out for an interview with Chris in Counsel soon.