Courting trouble

During the summer the Tory government, the so-called party of law and order, announced that it was consulting on plans to shut down 91 courts and tribunals across England and Wales.

In the midst of the Labour leadership contest, this consultation was commented on by our shadow justice team, but in truth it went unnoticed by many in the party.

The proposal lists courtrooms from all across the country – from Accrington to Corby to my very own magistrates in Burton upon Trent, all of which play a vital function in providing access to local justice for local people.

Michael Gove’s decision to shut these courts will have a devastating impact on the towns and communities they serve. Be in no doubt once they are gone we will never get them back, as this is a Tory government hellbent on cutting public services to the bone. So why as a party have we decided not to collectively oppose the government on their plans to do this? I do not know.

To quote Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, he said the closures would, ‘more adversely affect people with disabilities and lower-income families’ – some of the very groups of people we claim to stand up for against this Tory government.

It must be noted that some Labour politicians have opposed the closures in their areas, such Iain Wright and Nic Dakin, both of whom spoke in a Commons debate back in September on the issue.

And I include myself as an individual community activist in opposing these closures on a local basis. Time and time again myself and several other members of the community made the point to people in Burton during our petition that anyone at any time in any place could be a victim or witness to crime, so access to local justice was a necessity to us all. It was a point that struck a chord with many and over 2,000 people signed our petition opposing the government’s plans.

Research done by the PCS union found that, since 2010, four out of 10 courthouses will have closed if the further 91 courts are given the axe next year. This is not just reckless but will deprive many communities of the access to local justice I talk about.

For example, if our court in Burton shuts the likelihood is that people will be sent to Cannock, and if anyone knows the geography of Staffordshire they will know this is not logistically straightforward. No doubt other communities will find themselves in a similar situation to ours and will ultimately end up in fewer people turning up to court and fewer cases being heard.

We must not forget the negative impact it will have on other highly skilled professions such as local solicitors and barristers too, and those working in the local media. I think back to my own daily paper, the Burton Mail, which will not have the capacity to send reporters out of town in order to continue their reporting of the courts – an important role of any local newspaper.

Under the new Labour leadership, we have spent a lot of time talking about how we are opposing the government’s austerity agenda, but to your everyday person on the street (or my non-political mum), what does austerity actually mean?

Again we need to spell out in black and white, and in the case of law and order, that Tory austerity means essential courtrooms shutting for good in places right across England and Wales, and as a Labour party, we are firmly opposed to this happening.

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Andrew Bettridge is a Labour activist in Burton. He tweets @AndyBettridge1

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Photo: Steve Calcott

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