In 1987, as a recently qualified solicitor, I started work as a litigation lawyer in the courts of Chichester. In those days the city was home to a busy magistrates’ court and a crown court, as well as a county court that dealt with all manner of civil disputes and family issues.
I appeared not only before these courts but also before the magistrates’ courts in Midhurst, Petworth and Arundel as part of the “roadshow” of justice. Together with crown prosecutors, court clerks and police officers, I travelled once a week to these West Sussex outposts in a bid to provide “local justice for local people”. These courts have long-since been closed.
The magistrates’ courts were for the most part presided over by lay magistrates called Justices of the Peace, a civic office with its roots in the Justice of the Peace Act of 1361. Initially appointed from the ranks of the landed gentry, modern JPs come from all walks of life. Until the Courts Act of 2003 it was a requirement that JPs lived within fifteen miles of the commission area for the court in which they sat – now there is a simple requirement that they should live within a “reasonable travelling distance” of their court.
With the threatened closure not only of Chichester’s magistrates’ court but also of the city’s county court and crown court, we are now facing another step in this gradual dilution of the principle of local justice for local people. There will be little public sympathy for those perceived as the “criminal classes” and indeed also the lawyers who represent them.
But we should remember that “criminals” are not the only people whose lives will be impacted by these proposed court closures. Spare a thought for those facing repossession of their homes who are currently assisted by Chichester barristers. Consider the victims of domestic violence seeking the protection of the local courts, the witnesses and the victims in criminal trials, and the individuals seeking justice in the small claims court.
The closure of Chichester’s law courts would not only bring massive inconvenience to vulnerable individuals but would also sound the death knell for “local justice for local people”. The Government has announced a “consultation” period to seek the views of legal professionals as well as anyone else who has an interest of judicial arrangements.
Although the outcome may well be a foregone conclusion, I would urge you to make your feelings known to the Ministry of Justice as soon — and as loudly — as possible.
Ian Oliver. Partner, litigation department.
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