Summarising his research for Centre Think Tank, Torrin Wilkins lays out how the government can protect local justice to ensure that crimes are handled in their local area.
If you look at the justice system today, a key future is local justice. This means that if a crime is committed in an area, then most of the time it will go to a Magistrates' Court nearby. It's easy to see why this has been built into the justice system when you think about how varied local areas are and the different problems people in those areas face. Having a local magistrate means having someone who is more likely to know the area the crime was committed in, the difficulties the people who live in the area face and the types of crimes that are committed there.
Another way to understand why this system is important is to look at what would happen if it didn’t exist. Your case may be heard by a magistrate who has no idea what your local area is like and may not understand your background. When trying to understand the background to a case this may be extremely important, and without it, it may leave the people involved in the case feeling misunderstood.
In order to avoid this situation and to uphold the idea of local justice, we have a set of local justice areas which cover the whole of England and Wales. These set the boundaries of where cases are normally dealt with by a Magistrates' Court. This system is set to be abolished under Conservative plans, with local justice areas being replaced by one area for both England and Wales. Whilst this reform is being done in the name of flexibility, the reality is, it is really trying to deal with deep cuts to the justice system.
The cuts to the justice system since 2010 have seen more than half of Magistrates' Courts closed, damaging magistrates' ability to meet the number of cases in their area. Alongside these cuts, magistrates themselves feel they are not valued by the justice system. The Secret Magistrate said that, “Poorly maintained buildings, non-functioning toilets and lifts, IT that does not work and – in many courts – the lack of perks such as hot drinks and biscuits (petty though they might seem), do little to boost morale”, and even on these simple areas the government has failed. It’s easy to forget that magistrates are unpaid volunteers who give up their time to support the justice system, and yet they are being forgotten.
With the system in such a bad way, abolishing local justice areas seems more like a way to stretch an already stretched and undervalued services. Abolishing local justice areas will see magistrates stretched even more having to travel to other areas that are underfunded and struggling to deal with the number of cases they have. If cases can be moved further away from a magistrate’s local area, they may also end up traveling long distances to deal with cases rather than dealing with cases in their local area.
Magistrates are already at breaking point and removing local justice areas will continue to make things worse.
Rather than abolishing these local justice areas they should instead be improved to make them genuinely more flexible without getting rid of the principle of local justice. The first step is to abandon the plans to abolish local justice areas and instead to give magistrates more power over the boundaries of existing local justice areas. The next step would be to deal with the funding cuts that have both closed Magistrates' Courts and reduced moral in those that are still open. That’s why I have proposed increasing funding for local justice areas that have seen cuts up to a level where they can deal with cases properly. On top of this we should also make it simpler for cases to be transferred between areas if this is requested.
Torrin Wilkins is the Founder and Director of Centre Think Tank. He can be found on Twitter at @TorrinWilkins.