Shine A Light

How local is local justice now in England and Wales?

For centuries the relationship between a local magistracy and local populace has mattered. In five years the government has closed 166 courts. A barrister writes.

Jon Mack
11 March 2014
Birmingham Magistrates Court, wikimedia

Last week a youth appeared in court to be sentenced. It’s immaterial whether I prosecuted or defended, as for present purposes are the subject matter of the charges, suffice to say that they were serious and doubly so for the youth concerned. I want to talk about local justice.

The youth had committed the offences in his home town, and been arrested and interviewed by officers from the CID at the police station in that town. He was charged and sent to the nearest youth court. Because the magistrates’ court in his home town was recently closed down, this meant going to court in a different town, 8 miles away. It’s not particularly far, and because of the type and seriousness of the charge, the case had to be heard by a District Judge. After a two day trial, a finding of guilt was recorded, and the matter adjourned for the preparation of a pre-sentence report.

Quite properly, the sentencing hearing was reserved to the District Judge who heard the trial. Three weeks after trial (or thereabouts), the court reconvened at another magistrates’ court, 30 miles from the location of the offences.

30 miles is a long way. In fact, there are 9 magistrates’ courts located closer, which made me wonder how ‘local’ is ‘local’?

Local justice

Academics Gibson and Watkins remind readers that,

‘Throughout their history magistrates have been locally-based, operating within their own communities and exposed to every day life around them.’

Cases should be heard by local magistrates in local courthouses. Members of the public or court reporters can attend and watch justice being done. Reports can be carried in local newspapers. Magistrates know the area, the schools, the housing estates, dual carriageways, high streets and pubs, and they represent the community they sit in judgment over. That’s important, as there is no jury drawn from local residents. Last month charity Transform Justice published research into the magistracy which found that magistrates,

‘… Believed passionately in local justice: “as local citizens, I think what we bring is: how would the community feel about this sentence. I think that’s one of the things we have to consider. Will they think it’s fair – has justice been done?” They felt that it was important to know the roads, shops and meeting places in their area so they could better judge the context of each crime. So they wanted magistrates to be drawn not just from the local area, but every part of that local area.’

In 2011, when the Ministry of Justice consulted on closing 142 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, John Thornhill chairman of national Magistrates’ Association pointed out that “Justice should be delivered so that the public can see it being done.” Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice said,

‘As courts are closed, victims, witnesses and defendants have to travel ever further. This means all are less likely to turn up in court, and the cost of travelling to the court is making it more difficult for offenders to pay fines.’

Payment of fines is an interesting tangent, but it should be recalled that in 2012/13 £76m of unpaid court fines were written off. Perhaps it should be made easier for offenders to pay their fines.

In this particular case, it would never have been reported in the press owing to the ages of the defendant and victim and the nature of the offences. The hearing was in the Youth Court, which essentially sits in private. In this respect, the location of the sentencing court is irrelevant. But the use of a courthouse which is the 10th closest to all involved offends the principle of local justice, and is solely to accommodate the administrative whims of HMCTS (the Courts Service).

If I’m wrong, and it doesn’t matter that the most local (or one of the most local) Youth Courts hear matters, why not have centralised regional Youth Courts? Why not have a centralised Magistrates’ Court? Why not have a centralised summary traffic offences court?

The idea’s not as ridiculous as it might sound. Section 16A(10) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, to be inserted by Clause 26 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill 2014, breaks any pretence of maintaining the local link by allowing a single magistrate to hear summary matters in a closed court, which is not necessarily the ‘local’ magistrates’ court.

I return to my question, ‘how local is local justice?’ Not as local as it once was, and it seems that the Ministry of Justice is wholly uninterested in the traditional link between a local magistracy and local populace. Transform Justice is right to conclude that local justice is diminished.


This piece first appeared on Jon Mack's blog.

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