The proposed closure of Burton County Court is a matter of concern to many of my constituents in Burton and Uttoxeter.
The services offered by County Courts like Burton, which manages the full range of civil, bankruptcy and divorce work, represent a direct link between our local communities and the justice system.
Nationally, the reorganisation of the courts system will mean that about 25% of County Courts will close. In Staffordshire, which has already lost Leek County Court, it is proposed that 2 out of the 4 remaining County Courts will go. Both of the County Courts that are closing – Burton and Tamworth – are in the eastern part of the county. If either Burton or Tamworth were to close alone, then it is likely that business would transfer to the other as the two towns are nearby and have good road and rail links between them.
This closeness is recognised in another part of the consultation document where it is proposed that Tamworth Magistrates’ Court should close and it business transferred to Burton.
To close both of these courts would be a double blow to the area, leaving residents in East and South-East Staffordshire with long journeys to the nearest County Court.
The consultation paper says that Stafford County Court is 26 miles away, by the shortest route, and that it takes 45 minutes by car – presumably by the quickest route. This isn’t a short journey by car but the task is much more difficult for the 24% of households in the Burton constituency that do not have access to a car or van and so have to rely on public transport. Many of these households will be amongst the most vulnerable in the area – low income households, the elderly or people with disabilities.
According to the consultation paper, it takes 2 hours and 23 minutes to get from Burton to Stafford by bus – a round trip takes the best part of a working day. Even by train, it takes an hour and 40 minutes at a cost of a whopping £14.30 for a normal adult return fare.
It is important to remember that these times are from the existing County Court in Burton to the proposed alternative in Stafford. For many people – people who don’t live next door to the County Court – the journey will be significantly longer than this as they will have to come into Burton town centre to get a bus or a train on to Stafford. For constituents living in areas like Marchingon – one of the larger villages in the middle of my constituency – or Rocester, the home of JCB, there is no combination of trains and buses that can get them to Stafford County Court in time for a 9 O’Clock hearing. It is not possible to reach Stafford by 10.00am from Marchington for example; the earliest service arrives at 10.45 after a journey of two hours and thirty minutes.
It is true that Derby County Court is more convenient for many of my constituents than Stafford would be. However, whilst it may seem sensible in principle to say that cases will be transferred from Burton to Derby, many people have doubts as to whether this is likely to happen in practice.
The Derby courts fall outside of the West Mercia and Staffordshire Area Court Service and Derbyshire’s courts are subject to a separate review. If changes to the County Court service in Derbyshire leads to more work from other courts in Derbyshire being transferred to Derby County Court, it seems likely that work from Burton will fall a long way down the pecking order and will ultimately be transferred to Stafford. The suggestion in the consultation paper that work could be transferred to Derby has, therefore, done little to reassure my constituents.
Transport difficulties in getting to courts not only affect the parties to a case and legal practitioners. Witnesses face the prospect of having to travel long distances to give evidence – the process of which often only takes ten or twenty minutes. This cannot be an efficient use of time.
If the priority is to reduce inefficiency in the Court system then the priority should be to tackle non-attendance in court, which is a problem in the civil courts just as it is in Magistrates’ Courts. This problem can only be made worse by increasing the inconvenience for witnesses who are called to give evidence. Family cases in both the County Court and Magistrates’ Court system often require evidence from local area social service officers who are most likely to be based in the town closest to the parties to a case.
The suggestion is that Burton County Court is not currently used efficiently, with a total of 178 sitting days before District and Deputy District Judges. This problem is easily overcome if we consider the overall effect of the closure of courts in Staffordshire rather than just Burton County Court in isolation.
The consultation paper proposes closing Tamworth County Court and transferring work to Stafford. It is suggested that work should be transferred from Tamworth Magistrates’ Court to Burton Magistrates’ Court.
If the same arrangement were to be applied to the County Courts, this would add an additional 60 sitting days to the work at Burton County Court.
Court users in Tamworth would benefit as they would only have to travel to Burton, rather than to Stafford and the Court in Burton could be brought up to the necessary standards to reflect its increased workload.
Such an upgraded County Court in Burton would also have obvious benefits to court users in East Staffordshire and a small, but very real impact on regeneration in Burton. Furthermore, it would still mean that Staffordshire would bear its fair share of the burden of the reorganisation – losing 1 in 4 of its County Courts – exactly the national average.
Both SE Staffs and Central and SW Staffs benches have strongly rejected the merger. The “bench” structure reflects local areas and magistrates know each and their areas providing a more effective courts service.
Closing Burton county court would have a serious impact on my constituents in Burton and on the effectiveness of the judicial system in Staffordshire. The journey times to the alternatives are unacceptable, and will impact heavily on court attendances as a result. The alternative of closing Tamworth and redirecting cases to Burton would provide a better service to Tamworth residents than the alternatives, and improve the efficiency of the court in the process.