Consultation to close Suffolk’s law courts: my response

Consultation on government proposals on the provision of court and tribunal services in the South East Region: Suffolk

I am replying to the Suffolk element of this consultation as County Councillor for Woodbridge, Suffolk, and as Transport spokesman for the Suffolk County Liberal Democrat group. The MoJ proposes to close all law courts at  Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft leaving the county with just the courts in Ipswich. I am replying as Liberal Democrat Transport spokesman because I consider that transport issues are key to why these proposals are flawed and need to be rejected.

1 You ask if I agree with the proposals? What overall comments would I like to make on the proposals? As County Councillor for Woodbridge in Suffolk, and spokesman for the Suffolk County Liberal Democrat group , I strongly disagree with the proposals.   I am concerned for the further (and extreme) loss of local delivery of local justice services and the impact this will have on Suffolk residents – most particularly those who through age, infirmity or poverty have transport difficulties. This is a significant number of the residents of Suffolk.   Putting aside anxieties about ‘trial by video’ , it would seem particularly ironic that Suffolk’s legal representation is in danger of being reduced to one single court with all the difficulties of access from the west , mid-Suffolk and the north of the county, in this iconic Magna Carta 800th anniversary year. With rural public transport  as it is, it is not hard to imagine the difficulties that will arise from having to attend court as appellant, defendant, or witness or if you are a juror or indeed any number of other situations. The Ministry of Justice is talking about trial by video links. My view is that will not be a substitute for face to face justice!

Most particularly I take issue with your overarching phrase “these proposals could result in some people having longer journeys to the courts and tribunals. I am committed to working with rural communities to provide alternative ways for the public to access the justice system. These could include the use of civic or other public buildings for occasional hearings, video links or telephone or paper hearings to avoid travel altogether. It is vital we understand the demand for alternative provision as we plan services for the future. “ It seems to me that ‘alternative ways  to access the justice service should not -and cannot be – your goal if you intend to provide an equal level of justice across the UK. And int 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta it ill behoves the MoJ to intend anything else.

2 You ask if the proposals for the provision of court and tribunal services have a direct impact on me and ask for further details.

It will have a direct impact on my constituents and all people of Suffolk – as jurors, as appellants and defendants and as witnesses. As families of people in all of these categories. And as Court officials and members of the judiciary and magistracy. And as those who serve justice as police, probation officers etc. It is hard to think of anyone who this will not have a direct impact on.

3. You ask are there other particular impacts of the proposals that HM Courts & Tribunals Service should take into account when making a decision? Magna Carta defined an important principle of equality under the law – which remains in the law books today. Local delivery of justice must involve local courts, JPs, police etc operating in a local setting  If the location of the justice system is too remote, this then disadvantages everyone in the process – victims, witnesses, and defendants, as well as all those with an interest. Distance travelled will also affect other things – such as the the local reporting of local cases in local media.

Travelling to Ipswich will be difficult  for appellants, witnesses, defendents, juries etc and will incur additional costs, which will bear particularly hard on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With the current poor provision of rural public transport (and 20% of Suffolk households are without a car)  this reduction in location  will have a substantial impact on those with ‘protected characteristics’. For a start there will be huge anxiety about being able to make it to court ‘on time.’ People may well be penalised for contempt of court. Justice will be disadvantaged in consequence.  Traditional  local roles, such as being a jury member or a JP will become very much harder in this scenario. Anyone living in one of our rural Suffolk villages knows that your assessments of the additional time and chances of getting transport to Ipswich fail to recognise the availability of transport, the slowness of transport, the timing of transport – and indeed whether it actually exists. Sadly, these days, public transport simply does not exist in many areas of rural Suffolk.

 4. You provide an Impact Assessment of the likely impacts and supporting analysis and ask for  comments on the evidence used or conclusions reached The proposals will result in Suffolk having only courts in Ipswich (and relying on some not-particularly-easy-to-access cross-border courts in Norfolk). Suffolk will be only one of six counties in the country that have a single court centre.  Norfolk, our neighbouring county – equally rural, and for no particular reason better favoured by the MoJ – will retain three courts.  Based on the geographical area served by a Court, Suffolk will have the worst per square mile provision in the country! I cannot see any reason why our residents should be so poorly served!

The travel times quoted in your consultation document are seriously flawed.  Suffolk is a rural county and driving between towns on single carriageway roads takes considerably longer than the quoted times, especially during peak times or during harvesting. Travelling from Lowestoft Courts to Great Yarmouth Courts, for example, takes much longer than the 20 minutes quoted.  And that is by car!

Travel times you have quoted are times only between the existing court facilities, by car, and ignoring any journeys that are required to reach those centres.  On top of the (deeply optimistic) times quoted for Bury St Edmunds, to Ipswich people have to reach Bury St Edmunds. Often from rural villages and hamlets miles away .  For those many who are reliant on public transport, bus journeys may be required before train services can be accessed. Bus journeys may indeed be required instead of train journeys in many cases as there are few rail routes crossing the whole of Suffolk: Norwich to London, Ipswich to Cambridge,  Ipswich to Peterborough, and Ipswich to Lowestoft. Apart from the Norwich to Ipswich line, trains are infrequent and slow. We really cannot rely on appellants, defendants, witnesses, jurymen, families etc living near a rail station (and sadly many stations have little connection with scheduled bus services). 

It is statistically impossible that 95% of affected people will be able live in the kind of places and experience the kind of conditions that will allow them to make the 1 hour to court your proposals are based on

In fact the consultation statement that 95% of the population of Suffolk are within one hour of court is complete and utter balderdash – and the person who made it needs to be asked to justify it in terms of the realities of rural transport conditions! It does not apply to those from socially deprived areas, or those who are unable to drive (people such as this county councillor whose health condition prevents her holding a driving licence. It is an interesting notion that the disabled and disadvantaged should get second-class justice –and completely against the provisions of Magna Carta.  Why should we be entitled to less access to justice than if we lived  in London, just because of our health?)

5. You ask if there are alternatives to travelling to a physical building that would be a benefit to some users? You suggest these might  include using technology to engage remotely or the use of other, civic or public buildings for hearings as demand requires. An appearance in court is a salutory experience that may often prevent reoffending.  It is particularly daunting to be tried in a local building where there is the chance of being seen by one’s friends and neighbours and reported on by a local press. This was a situation best served by the 12 courts we had in the 1990s. As this is no longer possible, it is better served by retaining the three current centres than by your current proposal with any technological augmentation.

 6: Additional comments. In Suffolk the number of magistrates’ courts has fallen from 12 in the 1990’s to the current proposal of one for the whole county.  Twenty years ago there used to be a magistrates court in Woodbridge, the town I represent. We are now faced with the idea that local justice for nearly a million people can be dispensed from one location: Ipswich.  My view is that these proposals have been made as a cost-saving exercise and without any clear idea or intention of providing justice. The local magistrates courts have been at bursting point for years now – and this new proposal  is one step too far. In the interests of justice this scheme for Suffolk must not go ahead.

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