When I began practising back in the 1980s, there were courts all around where I live in North Kent. I remember, for example, that between Dartford in the west, Sittingbourne in the east and Maidstone in the south (an area about 30 miles by 20) there were magistrates’ courts in Sheerness, Sittingbourne, Chatham, Gravesend, Northfleet, Dartford, Maidstone and West Malling. The effect of this was that, wherever you lived, you were no more than about ten miles, and usually within five miles, of your nearest magistrates’ court.
How times have changed. Some years ago the courts at West Malling, Northfleet and Sheerness disappeared. They were then duly followed into history by the courts at Gravesend (particularly sad for me – that was where my late father had been Clerk to the Justices) and, most recently, Sittingbourne. Now, if the Lord Chancellor gets his way, the court at Dartford will also be closing. Thus, an area that was once served by eight magistrates’ courts will only be served by two. In fact, the whole county of Kent will only be served by six magistrates’ courts. It will then be perfectly possible to be twenty miles from your nearest magistrates’ court, and you will be lucky if you are within ten miles. Such is progress.
The proposal to close Dartford Magistrates’ Court was contained in a consultation published last week by the Ministry of Justice. The consultation contains proposals to close no fewer than 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. However, I will concentrate here on Dartford, as I know it and I have a certain affinity for it, as it was the first court in which I appeared, as a nervous newly qualified solicitor all those years ago. That was on a Juvenile (i.e. criminal) Court matter, although Dartford did then also entertain family cases. Its family jurisdiction came to an end some years back, as I recall.
The consultation states that Dartford currently runs seven criminal courts per week. That is, there are seven courtrooms sitting all day each week. All of that work is to be transferred to the magistrates’ court at Chatham.
Part of the reasoning behind the closure and transfer is that the facilities at Dartford are inadequate and out of date for staff, judiciary and all court users, and the work can be accommodated at Chatham Magistrates’ Court, which offers better accommodation and facilities for users. Whilst I can certainly confirm what is said about the facilities at Dartford (they were out of date when I first appeared there, but that didn’t stop its continued use over the following thirty years), and I can also confirm that the facilities at Chatham are much better, but what does not seem to have been considered is the extra volume that Chatham will have to cope with. The court at Chatham was originally built for the Chatham area alone, and it has already had to cover for other court closures, in particular the closure of the once-busy court at Gravesend. The facilities there may originally have been suited for Chatham business, but are they suited for the business of all those other courts as well? Clearly, the experience of court users is likely to deteriorate, with longer delays, crowded waiting areas and so on.
One other feature of magistrates’ courts is, of course, that the magistrates are local to the courts, and therefore knowledgeable about the area. That local connection, for what it’s worth, is obviously likely to weaken as courts centralise.
So, court users are likely to have further to travel, they are likely to experience delays in obtaining justice and their experiences of attending court are likely to deteriorate. Welcome to modern justice.
The above is, of course, just one small local snapshot, and only relates to magistrates’ courts – meanwhile, county courts have undergone, and are undergoing, similar changes. I am sure, however, that it is indicative of what is happening all over the country, in relation to criminal, civil and family courts. Justice, for most of us, is no longer to be local, as it always has been. In a written statement Courts Minister Shailesh Vara says that after the changes, over 95 per cent of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car. That’s all very well for those who have a car, but tough luck for those who don’t. And as for the other five per cent…