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Court closures blamed for magistrates shortage as ‘local justice at risk’

PUBLISHED: 15:41 10 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:41 10 March 2017

Lowestoft Magistrates Court.

Lowestoft Magistrates Court.

©Archant 2013

A shortage of volunteers to dispense justice in Suffolk has led to an appeal for help, with the number of magistrates declining after courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft were closed.

The Bury and Lowestoft courts closed in October 2016, despite a concerted campaign from across the legal, policing and wider community to prevent the plans.

At the time, many claimed that magistrates numbers could be hit, as some would not be prepared to carry out the unpaid role when they would not be dispensing “local justice” in their own communities.

Lord Andrew Phillips, who worked in the Suffolk legal system for many years, said the declining numbers were a “scandal”.

“The justice system is becoming faceless and anonymous,” he said. “There was a phrase in the world of law ‘justice of the people, for the people and by the people’. This is just simply not true anymore.

“Magistrates should be people from the community, but this has been eroded away.”

He said community minded people do not want to preside over cases with no bearing on their local area, while the distance many magistrates now have to travel to the Ipswich court did not help.

“The lack of local justice and policing in the community damages society and creates the apathy we see today,” he added. “Witness might not come forward if they never see justice being done, or never see their local police officer in the street.”

Since the closure, numbers of magistrates have declined, and former magistrate Richard Kemp, who had to step down after reaching the age limit of 70, said numbers will continue to decline.

“A cornerstone of the magistrates’ courts system is local people sitting in local courts,” he said. “The consecutive closures have taken that away.

“Why are people who are not paid going to want to travel 50 miles or so to sit in a court and deal with people from nowhere near where they live?

“Magistrates used to have local knowledge, more than was on the charge sheet in front of them, and that knowledge helped them make their decisions.”

■ If you wish to volunteer as a magistrate, you can contact Karen Dennis on 01473 298994 or email karen.dennis1@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk

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