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Flexible courts and local justice

Criminal solicitor Jon Black of BSB Solicitors explains why the government’s flexible court plan is ill thought-through and unworkable

Three miles before the end of the A1 you will see a new development of luxury flats being built. It is called ‘The Court’. This is the site of the former Highgate Magistrates court, where many of my colleagues cut their teeth and plied their trade before a local bench dispensing justice for Haringey citizens.

There were two courts in Haringey – the other was on the opposite end of the borough in Tottenham. And, while this example is being used to make a point, it is perhaps not the best illustration of local justice as this particular court centre was never easily accessible via public transport for those in the poorer end of the borough.

There is a clear correlation between court closures, the housing crisis and the government’s ill thought through ‘flexible courts’.

When I first started working as a criminal defence lawyer I learned my way around London through locations of the generous distribution of courts and police stations.

While Westminster accommodated a whopping five magistrates’ courts, each borough had at least one serving its local commute. Camden was lucky enough to have two – in Hampstead and in Clerkenwell (and four police station across the borough).

Local justice for local people started at 10:30 and the list concluded by 4:30. This was what flexible working really looked like as it allowed users to take children to school, deal with early morning phone calls, check post, open up their shops, read case papers, ensure cases are correctly listed and then, post court, collect children from child-minders, deal with end of day phone calls, sign off post, collect files for the next day, close up the shop, and prepare for the next day.

We live in a digitally connected 24-hour society, so I am not going to start sounding like a ‘keep Sunday special campaigner’, but it worked didn’t it?

Court hours changed about 10 years ago when sittings started at 10.00 am, and guess what –  in each of the few remaining court centres very few cases are ready to be called on for the 10.00 start. I am willing to bet a month’s peak travel card that very little will commence at 8am.

Here’s why. The need for flexible courts is a symptom of the closure of local courts. It is nothing to do with allowing witnesses and justices to get to their day jobs, because these people make up a tiny fraction of the court system. It is every thing to do with the need to squeeze more work into the remaining courts centralised at the cost of local justice.

The CPS lawyer won’t have looked at their files; the Serco van won’t have picked up all the prisoners; the video link may not be working; the defendants, with the best will in the world will be in no hurry to get to court for 8am, especially having to travel to some distant court at peak hour rates.

And then there are those who keep the system going – the lawyers and court staff.

Twenty years ago I rented a flat a few doors away from Highgate Magistrates’ Court. The letting agent sold it to me with its proximity to the A1 traffic and a stone’s throw from a local justice area. In those days legal aid rates and salaries were just about keeping in line with inflation and a home within greater London was just about affordable .

Two decades on, and we are witnessing a spike in new high-end housing being built in and around London – such developments have pushed the market out of the reach of the ‘squeezed middle’ among whom, there is no doubt, legal professionals can be included.

Many key workers, including court  lawyers and court staff are moving out of London, taking up posts in the home counties or further afield. They are buying or renting properties in the more affordable zones from where they choose to commute.

Unfortunately, these areas are not two or three doors away from local courts, because local courts have closed – their work having been consolidated into courts in other parts of the city, and the buildings that previously served the local community are now being converted into luxury blocks.

Those pushed to exterior zones of our capital as a result of the shortage of available affordable housing deserve a little less dismissive approach by a government, which has once again demonstrated disregard for those who work within it.

The government needs to understand that it is all very well closing courts and it is all very well selling them off for luxury homes, but they don’t need to insult those for whom they have disassembled local justice by requiring them to leave home at 6am and pay for the privilege of travelling in super peak times in order to plaster over the justice gap.

It all makes me think of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi song:

They took all the trees
And put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em

 

Jonathan Black

About Jonathan Black

Jon is a criminal defence solicitor at BSB Solicitors and former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association

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