I am delighted to host this guest post by Joanna Hardy of Red Lion Chambers, articulating better than I can the appalling legacy of the Ministry of Justice’s continued selling-off of our courts.
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 The chewing gum has, presumably, gone and been replaced by a “rooftop terrace and steam room”.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 09:30am. 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” building we ought to remember the real value of community justice and how much losing local courts might cost us all.
Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers.