Labour is currently considering ways of creating “pop up” courts in local town halls and civic buildings across England and Wales as a way of restoring local justice.
The radical proposal is aimed at compensating for the decline in Magistrates courts which has seen more than 150 close in England and Wales through cost saving measures over the past five years.
Bringing Justice Closer
Lower level cases, for example, motoring offences, non-payment of TV licences and hearings where no plea is entered could all be dealt with in pop-up courts. The party’s plans are more extensive than those currently under consideration by the coalition and are aimed at bringing “justice closer to the people”.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, commented:
“There’s been a dramatic deterioration in access to justice under this government. Not only have legal aid changes meant that those without financial means find it more and more difficult to get justice, court closures have meant increased distances for people to get to their nearest courts.
“In many of the more rural areas, public transport is just not up to the job of getting victims, witnesses and defendants to court on time. I see little reason why thousands of lower level offences should continue to be dealt with in a decreasing number of magistrates’ courts. Communities the length and breadth of the country are blessed with civic buildings like town halls with underused chambers sat idle for long periods of time.
“It’d be much more efficient to put town hall chambers to good use and hold pop up courts in them.
“By doing this, we’d bring justice much closer to the people, and reverse the steady retreat of justice into the major towns and cities. That’s why, if Labour wins the next election, we will look to move thousands of court cases into publicly accessible and owned buildings up and down the country.”
Closure of 157 Courts
In 2010 the coalition government announced plans to close 157 Magistrates’ courts as a means of saving money from the Ministry of Justice’s budget. By July 2014 almost 30 of the buildings had still not been sold. Ministers have struggled with balancing the requirement to make costs savings against preventing the provision of justice becoming too remote from many smaller communities.
The coalition’s criminal justice and courts bill will introduce measures to allow single Magistrates, as opposed to the usual bench of three Magistrates, to sit on less complex cases where the defendant pleads guilty. Labour has supported these changes. Some uncontested motoring cases heard by single magistrates, the Conservative justice minister Mike Penning has suggested, could be held outside traditional courtrooms in community or village centres.