Shortened opening hours to continue HMCTS tells North Devon Magistrates' Court users
NORTH Devon Magistrates' Court will continue to operate a shortened week until at least September, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service justice's clerk for the South West has revealed.
The court's opening hours were reduced in November, as part of a HMCTS pilot designed to save money.
And at a meeting of North Devon Council's crime and disorder sub-committee justice's clerk to the South West, Tim Smith, said the pilot had "worked from our point of view".
The committee, which is a sub-committee of the council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee, met yesterday afternoon with a large public audience in attendance which included several lawyers, magistrates, probation workers and representatives of other court users.
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"There are winners and losers," Mr Smith said before going on to say the current court pattern would continue but would no longer be a pilot, "as we don't believe we've got it fundamentally wrong".
"In our terms it has worked because we haven't had an adverse impact on our indicators," he added.
However, those indicators were the subject of some debate, with North Devon Council leader Brian Greenslade pressing Mr Smith over the criteria on which the pilot had been assessed.
At a meeting with Mr Smith in October last year Mr Greenslade was told he would be made aware of the criteria, but said he hadn't received them until two days before yesterday's meeting.
"It's disappointing to hear the pilot is now over as I only received the criteria this week," he said.
Mr Greenslade was supported by Thor Beverley from the Youth Offending Team, who listed the ages of the five most recent youth defendants to have had their cases listed for trial.
The average wait between the youths' first appearance in court and their trials was 74 days.
"It's not good for the defendants of the victims," Mr Beverley said.
"It delays working with the young person to put right the problems in their life and delays justice for the victim."
There was also support from Vicky Hemingway, North Devon Against Domestic Violence's court liaison officer.
Since the pilot began she says several cases involving domestic violence have been badly effected as a result.
"I can count 10-15 cases where there's been an adjournment of the trial," she said.
"On one occasion a victim waited three months for a trial which then didn't start until 4pm because the court list was so full on the trial day.
"It was then adjourned again for another three months."
Sandy Rovery, also from HMCTS, agreed a 74 day wait for youths was "an inappropriate time frame", and expressed shock that domestic violence cases weren't going ahead.
"If we're putting them off it concerns me," he said.
"We need to stop that and must find a way of accommodating them or set up a specialist court."
That shocked the audience, as Mr Smith had previously said HMCTS couldn't afford to run any more courts and the Crown prosecution Service had told him they couldn't provide prosecutors to any more courts than there currently are.
Mr Smith also disappointed the audience, and the committee, when he said HMCTs can't yet point to any tangible savings as analysis of basic running costs hadn't been done.
And he also rebuffed claims any savings made by HMCTS would be countermanded by extra costs incurred by other organisations.
"We're not in the game of cross transference," he said, which prompted scoffs from Slee Blackwell criminal law solicitor Jen Law, who said, "that's exactly what they're doing".
Among those costs incurred by other agencies is the cost of rail and bus travel warrants for up to 25 defendants who were taken to Exeter Court on days when North Devon Magistrates' Court wasn't sitting,
Of 41 people taken to Exeter 16 were jailed or remanded in custody, which means they would have travelled to Exeter anyway, but 25 were released on bail with several having their travel back to North Devon funded by the taxpayer.
The meeting came to a close with committee chairman Lesley Brown asking Mr Smith to provide full reports for the committee members and to return to meet them regularly.
"I would urge you to come back to the sub-committee," she said.
"We need to know urgently what your future proposals are and would like reports back on a monthly basis."
But Mr Smith, whose patience appeared to have worn thin snapped back, "we're not actually accountable to this committee".
Councillor Joe Tucker said: "We can talk about this for some time but there seems to be some lack of communication between your department and people who are having their court dates put off."
And as the meeting ended Miss Law reminded Mr Smith, "you aren't accountable but you have said you will consult over any further changes and I hope you stick to that".