In the Media

Now our courts face the axe

PUBLISHED October 26, 2006

THE VAST majority of criminal cases are to be switched from Macclesfield Magistrates Court to Crewe as the county?s entire summary sessions crumble into melt-down.

Defendants facing jail will no longer be tried or sentenced before JPs sitting at Hibel Road from January 1, 2007, where benches will in future concentrate solely on non-indictable issues.

The news ? said to be cast in stone and made in the name of justice by its bearer His Honour Judge D Elgan Edwards, Honorary Recorder of Chester ? has been greeted with fury by the town?s solicitors and other users who fear the switch to Crewe, Warrington and Chester, will ultimately lead to the closure of the local courthouse and the possible loss of jobs.

Mr Edwards ? who was acting on behalf of the law-maker the Right Honourable Lord Justice Thomas, Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales ? made it clear in a letter he dispatched to senior magistrates only late last week that there would be no consultation and changes would not be made.

"There is no alternative," he wrote.

And he added that a backlog in summary trials had risen to above 1,400 ? double the manageable figure.

He said: "For the first time in my experience it is now quicker to have a trial heard in the crown court than in some of the magistrates? courts in Cheshire. This is simply not acceptable."

Mr Edwards said the legal pile-up was having "a seriously detrimental impact on victims, witnesses and defendants" and could not be allowed to worsen.

Therefore, more trials sessions had to be heard with custody cases being heard in Warrington, Chester and Crewe and centralising traffic offences in Northwich.

All parties will be forced to travel the 86-mile round trip to Crewe ? the court most likely to deal with Macclesfield criminal cases.

And last night police insiders said they doubted defendants on bail would cough up the ?11.05 return fare to get there even if they ever attempted to make the journey.

Local lawyers, who are already coming to terms with having to travel to Middlewich to interview prisoners, were working out whether to cut their losses and quit the town once the new system is launched.

Meanwhile, Her Majesty?s Court Service, the CPS and Cheshire Criminal Justice Board insist the changes were vital to solving the problem.

The proposals were finally decided by the Area Judicial Forum chaired by Judge Elgan Edwards, who then had to deliver the grim news that had been rubber-stamped by the senior presiding judge.

Last night (Tuesday) local MP Sir Nicholas Winterton, was furious about the changes. He has protested to the Minister of State at Department of Constitutional Affairs Harriet Harman and Brian Chesworth, chairman of Macclesfield bench.

He described the decison as "dictatorial" and a blow to the principles of local justice and the status of the town.

Sir Nicholas said: "I am absolutely disgusted. I am concerned that local justice will no longer be dispensed locally.

"The way that a couple of judges have made this decision without any consultation because the CPS could not find a certain amount of funding is dictatorial.

"For the sake of maybe a half million pounds, Macclesfield could lose its court.

"We are an influential town in Cheshire and should have our own magistrates court."

Mr Chesworth ? who was awarded an OBE for his service to the courts ? said his colleagues were outraged their objections had been ignored despite making their protests clear. He claimed the underfunding of the CPS was the real reason for the move ? which the service flatly denied.

He said: "This was a political decision taken without any consideration for the general public and the local solicitors and other agencies who support and assist them.

"Magistrates were appointed to dispense local justice, and now such justice will be made at courts which are exceedingly difficult for the public to attend."

Solicitor Franklin Mark Sinclair, Law Society spokesman for Macclesfield, said: "It is a very dangerous way to go but it seems part of these move towards greater centralisation.

"If this is part of a plan to close down the court, as many feel, without a police station or court, solicitors will be forced to move ? and that will make it very difficult for poor people in Macclesfield to get criminal representation."

An HMCS spokeswoman said: "The new listings arrangements in Cheshire put victims and witnesses at the heart of the system by grouping together similar types of cases to enable better focus of resources, particularly by CPS, ensuring that cases are handled more swiftly and efficiently."

A Cheshire Criminal Justice Board spokeswoman said: "For some months the board has been seeking solutions to reduce the increasing problem of delays in criminal trials being concluded."

A Cheshire CPS spokeswoman said: "The changes are being made to maximise the timeliness and effectiveness of the local criminal justice system and to improve the satisfaction of victims and witnesses."