Grantham Journal Big Interview: Court closure plan ‘beggars belief’

Chris Pye-Smith of Bird & Co in Castlegate, Grantham. ENGEMN00120130515125415
Chris Pye-Smith of Bird & Co in Castlegate, Grantham. ENGEMN00120130515125415
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A managing partner for Grantham-based law firm Bird & Co has spoken out a second time on proposals to close Grantham Magistrates’ Court.

The court, in Harlaxton Road, is one of 91 earmarked by the government for closure, as part of plans to reform courts and tribunals in England and Wales.
Here, Mr Pye-Smith, a criminal law solicitor, voices his concerns.

The Justice Minister, Michael Gove, is currently consulting on the closure of Grantham Magistrates’ Court.

The consultation document seeks to justify closure primarily on the ground that the Grantham court is “underutilised” and its cases could be heard in Lincoln instead.

The reality is that the Court at Grantham is not short of work. The truth is that there has been a deliberate plan to squeeze as many cases into as few court sittings as possible over the last few years. This plan meant fewer prosecutors were needed and as a result many have taken redundancy.

Fewer court legal advisers were needed and they also fell in number significantly and regularly are now drafted in from neighbouring counties.

Take next Monday as an example. This firm alone has 19 new crime cases in court that it is currently aware of and no doubt there will be other cases where the firm will be asked to act on the day. Not long ago those 19 cases would have been listed over at least two days. Now they are shoe-horned into one ‘manic Monday’.

The theory is that the cases will be ready for speedy progress at the first hearing but the reality is that we have requested case papers in advance from the desperately under-funded Crown Prosecution Service and have received very few.

Thus on Monday we will have to receive the papers for most of those cases, read them, sort out whether and how we will be funded for our work, go through the papers with our clients, advise on the evidence, advise as to plea, advise as to possible sentence and advise as to procedure.

There will of course be inevitable issues about bail conditions, about restraining orders, about costs and compensation and ability to pay. This is not to mention the application of the vile criminal courts charge that is designed to blackmail people into pleading guilty and which has led to the resignation of more than 50 magistrates nationally. In some cases all of the above will have to be done via a translator, taking even longer.

Not only will you find the court up to its eyes in work on ‘manic Monday’ but there is such a backlog of cases waiting to be heard that the court is about to hold what the court administration has itself has coined “blitz courts” in order to try to reduce the number of cases waiting to be tried because it acknowledges that the number waiting is too high and contrary to the provision of justice.

So whilst it is said by Michael Gove’s Ministry of Justice that the court is underutilised, it is both overworked on days when it does sit and overwhelmed by the number of cases waiting to be tried.

In other words Grantham Court is underused, not underutilised, and the solution would be for it to sit more often trying criminal cases.

To propose to close it in these circumstances beggars belief.