HMCTS failure to recruit leads to remand court closures
Solicitor Nick Wright recently attended a Derbyshire Court User Group meeting where changes to remand courts in Derbyshire were presented as a fait accompli.
Lack of legal advisers
HMCTS has lost legal advisers locally. As a result there are insufficient legal advisers to run occasional courts for Saturdays and bank holidays in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. As a result from 9 October all remand cases heard on those days will now be dealt with at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court.
The intention is that there be two courts sitting, one for Nottinghamshire cases and one for Derby cases. HMCTS is still considering whether a third court can be held on bank holidays.
Enquiries were made as to whether other local legal advisers were in a position to step in. Unfortunately the answer is ‘no’. The contracts for legal advisers have recently been changed and the raise in basic salary funded by a cut in overtime rates. Unsurprisingly, there is a lack of volunteers. No doubt morale will be as low in the Court Service as elsewhere in the justice system.
Although we were told that the courts are committed to filling the staffing gap, and there are currently six trainees in the region, it has been noted that there are no legal adviser position advertised locally on the relevant website.
Problems for Derbyshire defendants
The new arrangements simply ignore the geography involved in order to suit the needs of the court caused by a failure to recruit.
The most northerly firm clients to fall within the Derbyshire ‘catchment’ may be as far away as Glossop. Glossop to Nottingham is a round trip of 140 miles, over three hours by car.
How will those granted bail or sentenced on a Saturday return home, leaving Nottingham late on a Saturday afternoon? Who will fund the journey home when many defendants are dependent upon benefits?
It also ignores the reality that family assistance and input is often crucial to permit bail applications to be made. Addresses and background information are provided by family and friends attending court in person to speak to the solicitor. Again, these arrangements are likely to render this support far more difficult or impossible, to the detriment of our clients.
Problems for lawyers
Another reality is that the effect of the change is that Derbyshire lawyers will not be able to represent their clients in a cost effective manner. As a result, the likelihood is that their clients will lose continuity of representation and the benefits that go with that.
Aside from the time involved in travel and the uncertainties relating to the granting of legal aid for those detained, Even if legal aid were granted the Legal Aid Agency has reminded practitioners that Nottingham is a ‘designated’ court. As a result, no time can be claimed by lawyers travelling to the court. The journey from Glossop or Chesterfield or Buxton or Derby will not attract any payment.
In terms of the organisation of work within these firms, managers will be faced with an uphill struggle to persuade advocates to attend Nottingham on Saturday mornings for what will inevitably be longer days.
Hunt the client
Unhelpfully, Derbyshire defendants could be found in any number of places on a Saturday morning. A maximum of 10 clients will be taken from Derbyshire to the Nottingham cells on a Saturday. The expectation is that rather than be told where a client is, solicitors need to phone the Nottingham cells on a Saturday morning. If the client isn’t in the cells then it would seem likely they are still at a police station.
Defendants over the magic number of 10 are to be dealt with by CVP from either St Mary’s Wharf police station in Derby or Ripley police station.
CVP can be requested in advance, adding another layer of bureaucracy to Saturday morning courts. Practitioners are unlikely to know whether the application is granted until the Saturday morning. Blanket approval cannot be given.
There are limited phone lines that can be used to speak with those kept at the police station and it is hard to see how, 16 months into the pandemic, it is still though appropriate to make a decision on bail and therefore liberty with instructions taken over the phone.
And what of probation?
Unsurprisingly, Derbyshire probation officers will not be expected to serve the Saturday courts in Nottingham, further prejudicing clients.
Defence subsiding the justice system again
It can be seen that once again the defendants and the defence lawyers are meant to absorb the costs of a collapsing justice system. Where are local courts left were the six trainees not to remain but seek better working conditions in another sector post qualification? What if more qualified advisers leave?
There appears to be no credible plan, and the number of courts are simply reduced and reduced at the expense of clients, their families, their representatives and local justice.
This may present an opportunity for practitioners to say ‘no more’ and refuse to provide representation in these courts. It is easy to see how court service failures could be used to justify the closures of courts such as Mansfield and Chesterfield which could easily go the way of Newark or Ilkeston Magistrates’.
Only time will tell!