The Slow Death of British Justice
Davis, Rowenna, New Statesman (1996)
"Can we go in there?" mumbles Chris, nodding towards a pokey private office. The 15-year-o1d speaks through an overcoat zipped up past his mouth. His eyes dart around the waiting area in Willesden magistrates' court, north-west London. It's choked with people waiting for cases to be called and the atmosphere is tense. Since budget cuts forced this court to merge with others nearby, it's been heaving with young people from rival gangs, from territories such as Church Road, Stonebridge and Hendon. The threat of violence is real.
"I'm from Neasden, but I obviously don't come around here normally," says Chris once the door is shut. "Anything could happen. People can make a phone call and get people down. I was outside [court] once and a group of guys got out of a cab and chased me down the street."
Magistrates' courts don't deal with high-profile cases, but they matter. Although they mostly fall below the national media's attention, they make judgments on more than go per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. Their focus is on serving justice locally. They confront the underbelly of our communities, dealing with antisocial behaviour, gang crime and vandalism. Most distinctively, their judgments are made entirely by volunteers. The magistrates passing sentences are ordinary people from local communities taking responsibility. They learn as well as contribute. It's a fantastic system, but it's being dismembered.
Some 103 of our country's 330 magistrates' courts are closing as a result of cuts. Many, such as those in Woking and Harlow, have already been boarded up. In Wales, Barry court took the Ministry of Justice to judicial review, but they were overridden in the high court. The surviving courts must deal with the backlog, and the result is a failing system. The cost of rearranging cases is soaring. Bureaucracy is increasing. Witnesses are not turning up. Kids are taking more days off school. Justice is suffering.
With so much work being done by volunteers, our local justice system was an example of the Big Society at work. Its present woes are an indictment of the Tories and David Cameron in particular, who is criticised by his own backbenchers for failing to know what's worth protecting. Cutting 25 per cent from the Courts and Tribunals Service budget is a short-sighted saving that will come at great institutional cost in the long term.
"It's already taking longer for some cases to come to court," says John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, whose home town of Slough has gone from three courts to none. …