The public consultation into the proposed closure of Grantham and Skegness Magistrates Courts comes to an end on Thursday.
Grantham solicitor Chris Pye-Smith has vigorously opposed the proposal and has called on anybody who has not responded in the consultation to do so before the deadline arrives.
To take part in the consultation go to consult.justice.gov.uk
Below is the response of Mr Pye-Smith, who works for Bird and Co, in the consultation.
1 Do you agree with the proposals? What overall comments would you like to make on the proposals?
My representations are in relation to Grantham Magistrates’ Court specifically where I have practised as a solicitor for 20 years and about which I have good knowledge and experience. I am very firmly against the proposal for it to be closed.
Your overall plan for saving money is flawed. You say, and the Chief Executive of HMCTS recently confirmed, that the money raised from sale of Court estate will be re-invested into digital justice. The problem is that by definition you have to close the Courts and sell them first before that money is available. That will take some time.
We note for example that Spalding Magistrates’ Court, closed some years ago, is still unsold and being maintained and secured at public expense despite not being used. You will have closed the Courts and not put into place the (unspecific) digital alternatives that you refer to. What is going to happen during the two years or more
that it takes to realise funds from the closures? There will be many Court buildings that are not commercially viable. Should you not seek to sell estate first before closing any particular Court? You have not mentioned or considered the revenue now generated by the Criminal Courts Charge that should more than offset the operating costs of the Courts.
2 Will the proposals for the provision of court and tribunal services have a direct impact on you? If yes, please provide further details.
My colleagues and I will have to travel 70 miles round trip every time we need to attend Court, taking 2 hours of the day if using private motor vehicle, instead of the current 2 miles round trip that can be walked. This cost will be passed onto the Legal aid agency in the main (adding to the legal aid bill) and is environmentally unfriendly.
3 Are there other particular impacts of the proposals that HM Courts & Tribunals Service should take into account when making a decision? Please provide details.
You have overlooked that the catchment area of Grantham Magistrates’ Court is already very big. People travel from Stamford and Bourne and Market Deeping. They already have the best part of 1 hour’s travel to get to Grantham by private transport. This is longer by public transport. They will have to add another hour (by private vehicle) each way to their journeys to get to Lincoln. The journey from those places will involve buses and trains and will be a lengthy and expensive journey. I predict that the number of people failing to attend Court will increase significantly. They will have to be arrested and detained overnight by the police (adding to their costs), transported to Lincoln from Grantham Police station by GeoAmy and then probably given a travel warrant to get home.
Grantham is on the A1 and attracts many speeding motorist cases. These motorists can conveniently be dealt with at Grantham being near the A1 and importantly on the East Coast Mainline. Lincoln is much harder to get to and not on the main line from London. Many motorists who appear at Grantham for speeding reside in London and
need to travel by train in case of disqualification from driving at the hearing.
4 Our assessment of the likely impacts and supporting analysis is set out in the Impact Assessment accompanying this consultation. Do you have any comments on the evidence used or conclusions reached? Please provide any additional evidence that you believe could be helpful.
You have not considered youths at all. How will they get to Lincoln? They frequently do not have parents in support and if they do, can they all afford to travel by public transport or if in a private vehicle pay the fuel and to park for a day in Lincoln? The running costs of the Court are said to have been £237k in a year. However, I suspect this has been hugely reduced now as the office at Grantham has closed and there are no, or at most one, HMCTS staff based there. Your figures of costs are therefore out of date I strongly suspect. Please look again at this as clearly cost is highly relevant to your argument for closure.
The Criminal Courts Charge is intended to go towards the costs of defendants using Courts. I have calculated that the amount of the Charge that will be imposed in one year at Grantham will far exceed the figure of £237k. Much of it at Grantham will come from motoring offences where the prospects of it being collected are better than for the typical criminal defendant. In this way the Court can be viewed as running at a healthy profit and there is no financial need to close it. The minimum Criminal Courts Charge is for guilty plea/proof in absence for a summary only offence of £150. To get to £237k is only 1580 cases per year. That is about 30 a week. The Court at Grantham is dealing with many more cases than that and could deal with more if it was given the resources (CPS and Court legal advisers) to sit more often.
You are wrong with your “underutilisation” argument. The workload is there for the Court at Grantham to sit more often. When it does sit it is very heavily listed. There has been a deliberate plan to jam as much work into as few sittings as possible in recent years. This allowed the CPS to shrink and the Court legal adviser numbers to be reduced, saving money. There is a widespread feeling in the legal community however that the quality of justice has suffered very much by this. Furthermore the Court at Grantham is currently having “blitz courts” to address the backlog of cases. The necessity for these Courts (where we are told eighteen hours of cases have been listed to be heard in five and a half hours) does not sit well with your underutilisation argument. Also the Court really only has 2 courtrooms you can count as crime Courts in your calculations. Court 3 is an office that is occasionally used as a Court as an overspill when Courts 1 and 2 are in use. The Court 4 outside was added a few years ago but has always been little used and in reality was never needed. You should not count Courts 3 and 4 in your utilisation argument at all.
You have not considered the commercial viability of selling Grantham Magistrates’ Court or indeed any of the Courts’ estate. Is this not an obvious part of any assessment into closure when you envisage re-investing the sale proceeds into making the justice system more modern etc.? Will you be left with an unwanted building that you have to maintain and keep secure with 100% underutilisation?
5 Are there alternatives to travelling to a physical building that would be a benefit to some users? These could include using technology to engage remotely or the use of other, civic or public buildings for hearings as demand requires. Please explain your answer, with specific examples and evidence of the potential demand for the service
In Lincolnshire the Courts used to sit at Stamford Town Hall on a Monday and Bourne Town Hall on a Thursday. For reasons you presumably know already these Courts ceased sitting ten or more years ago. It is interesting but bizarre to hear Michael Gove suggest this “solution”. You could re-introduce them. I believe it is much better to have local justice.
6 Please provide any additional comments that you have.
Grantham Court is in good condition with good custody facilities and adequate interview room provision. Lincoln Magistrates’ Court is also in good condition but the cells only have two interview rooms which is wholly inadequate given the numbers of prisoners now going there from the whole of the county. The number of prisoners will increase as many defendants will fail to get to Court at Lincoln to answer bail. There are also insufficient interview rooms for those on bail at Lincoln.
Lincoln is going to struggle to cope with the workload of Grantham and Skegness, particularly from the prisoner numbers which will increase dramatically as those on bail fail to get to their hearings owing to the difficulty and cost of travelling to Lincoln instead of their local Court.