Two solicitors in Grantham have condemned plans by the Ministry of Justice to close the town’s magistrates’ court.
Stuart Wild and Chris Pye-Smith, of Bird and Co, say the proposals to close 91 courts across the country, including Grantham and Skegness, mean justice will suffer.
They said: “The Ministry of Justice published a consultation on July 16 2015 which ends on October 8 2015 to reform the courts and tribunals in England and Wales by implementing significant court closures. The Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, seeks to persuade that this will increase efficiency and create a justice system that reflects the way the people want to use services today.
“Following an earlier report by Lord Leveson, we as solicitors accept that it is necessary to engage in a move towards a more modern justice system. However, such moves need to be properly funded. Many courts, including Grantham, are soon to have Wi-Fi and have already had expensive digital screens introduced. A digital case management system for the administration of criminal cases is said to be well underway.
“The Ministry of Justice seeks to persuade the users and practitioners in the 91 Court buildings earmarked for closure, which include Grantham and Skegness, that access to justice can be preserved whilst reducing the size and cost of the estate. It is proposed that all Grantham Court work be allocated to Lincoln Magistrates’ Court and Skegness work be allocated to Boston.
“There is a fear that many closed courts will follow the fate of Spalding Magistrates’ Court which heard its last case over two years ago yet remains vacant and in the ownership of the Ministry of Justice which is continuing to maintain and secure the dormant building at the taxpayer’s expense.
“In Grantham, the Courts’ Service has chipped away to steadily reduce the number of court sittings in order to produce what is in reality a manipulated “utilisation” figure in the consultation document. The County of Lincolnshire used to be served by more than 10 Court centres providing local justice to local people, ironically including the use of several town halls (which Michael Gove now advances as a possible solution to ease rural issues!) For a few years now the County has been serviced only by Skegness, Boston, Grantham and Lincoln Courts.
“For more than 12 months, prisoners produced in custody from all Lincolnshire police stations have been taken to Lincoln Magistrates’ Court even when the nearest local Court is sitting just a few minutes away. Many prisoners upon release then have to be given public funds to make their way home.
“The Ministry has recently closed the office and administration centre at Grantham Court and centralised it in Lincoln causing a redundancy situation for a number of staff and significant relocation issues for others. In this way the consultation can say that few staff will now be affected by closure. However, they appear to ignore the security and cleaning staff working there as they are subcontracted and also the court ushers. The centralisation of the administration to Lincoln has not been without its difficulties. An email is usually responded to by way of automated message confirming that it will be looked at within five working days.
“Grantham Magistrates’ Court sits on seven out of every ten working days and yet is earmarked for closure. The Ministry seeks to persuade the public that utilisation has decreased in recent years with several areas of work moving out of the Court. These figures are in fact as a result of deliberate policies such as the removal of the custody cases, sending Family Court cases elsewhere and squeezing too many crime cases into fewer and fewer court sittings. Furthermore, the consultation suggests that the building has four courtrooms being used at 24% capacity overall, but this is unfair. One small office is occasionally used as a third courtroom when needed and the room at the back was built as a training centre but is now used by the County Court.
“The listing of trials is taking place months away to the detriment of victims and witnesses and this is likely to worsen with fewer court centres to hear cases and more pressure on Lincoln.
“Lincoln Magistrates’ Court is located about 30 miles away from Grantham. The consultation contains major flaws. It assumes every court attendee has access to a vehicle or in the absence of such, access to affordable and timely public transport. It assumes people must get to Court for 10am. This is wrong as many are bailed to 9am. The consultation does not take into account at all the people resident in the Grantham Court catchment area such as Colsterworth, Stamford, Bourne and Market Deeping. The transport network in Lincolnshire is insufficient and will be too expensive for many people to afford the extended journey to Lincoln. The consultation predicts that 78% of people travelling on public transport will need between one and two hours each way and 14% more than two hours each way. That is unacceptable although the true figure may actually be far worse. The predicted £14.60 cost is simplistically the train fare to/from Grantham but will not apply to those in Bourne, Stamford and villages outside who may have to use buses and trains in the same journey. The consultation has simply ignored them. Michael Gove himself has said that one hour’s travel each way is enough.
“Grantham Magistrates’ Court has good facilities and is not in need of improvement or upgrade. The Court centre allows access to justice for members of the public across the South of Lincolnshire. Without it, members of the public, be they involved in family or civil cases or as witnesses or victims of crime or the accused, will have to travel significant distances to the Court centre in Lincoln with either an early start or a late
journey home or both. Access to justice will suffer immeasurable damage. Witnesses may simply decide not to take the trouble to go and incur the upfront expense and cases could be dismissed as a result. What about children and young people whose parents are not always involved with them or cannot afford for everyone to travel? What about those who are vulnerable for other reasons or who find travelling difficult? A Court Justice Centre is an integral part of a functioning community. We must act now to save our Court Centre and the facilities it offers and unlock the potential it still holds for the future.
“Stuart Wild has created an online petition and asks that everyone signs it now to show the strength of feeling against this proposal. Go to www.change.org. However it is also essential to locate the Consultation online at courtclosureplan and respond to it.
“Austerity is one thing but the destruction of a justice system is far too high a price. People will be surprised to learn that on Monday, July 20, a man who was sentenced to imprisonment at Grantham had to be told to wait in the court public waiting area until he could be taken into custody. He duly waited. Four hours 20 minutes he waited!
This was because the custody area was staffed by one person only and could not accept a prisoner. An example of a service subcontracted to a large organisation which does not always deliver what is required, because big is not always beautiful.
“On Wednesday, July 22, there is a rally taking place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court by Solicitors and Barristers who are protesting at the cuts to the Justice System and the cuts to the availability of and payment for Legal Aid for members of the public who cannot afford to pay for representation. Many firms of solicitors nationwide have, since July 1 refused to take on new legal aid work in the Magistrates’ Courts and police stations as they are at a point where they cannot survive if they work at the new rates. As of July 27, the Criminal Bar Association has voted not to accept any new work in the Crown Courts which is where the more serious offences are heard.
“The Justice system and access to it is already under extreme stress and this latest Consultation will only worsen matters if it proceeds.”