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Editorial, 29th July, 2021

Last week we had a very sad and very unusual complaint.

A court case we had reported (and I won’t go into details) concerned a gentleman who, it transpired, had died just before we went to press.

The family was very upset to see their relation’s court case in the paper so soon after he had died, and we could only profusely apologise for the upset caused.

We report all the court cases, and cannot possibly check up on them all, but this is the first time that’s happened, as far as I can remember.

Covid restrictions and changes in the court system mean that we have not been attending court lately, so all we have to go by is the court register, ie the list of convictions.

The family member who contacted us explained the circumstances behind the case, which would have cast it in a different light had we been in court, although the gentleman concerned was guilty and pleaded as such.

I have written about this before and a major part of the problem is the increasing separation of courts from the towns they serve.

At one time each town would have had a court and local defendants would be tried there.

The magistrates would know them personally, and presumably balance what they knew from experience with the interests of justice, for good or bad. (In my long career the only time I’ve ever not reported a court case was for a woman convicted of shoplifting. While I was out eating my lunch, two of the three magistrates approached me and asked me not to print the story, because they knew the circumstances of the woman’s domestic life).

In last week’s instance, if the court had been more accessible to us, and the deceased gentleman had given evidence in front of one of our reporters we would have at least got his side of the story, and possibly written a story asking why he was in court in the first place (bearing in mind he did plead guilty).

But the individual town courts are all closed. For Congleton the court first moved to Sandbach, and then Crewe or Macclesfield. Many cases are now heard at Warrington or Stockport, and Macclesfield is closed. As for Biddulph, cases are mostly heard at Newcastle but do go to Cannock.

You can be done for drink-driving in the north of Birmingham and end up in court in Stoke and, if you chose to attend court, you’d have to travel all the way there and then get back without your licence.

It’s impractical for us to attend court every day. Crewe was hard but Warrington and Stockport are impossible.

The system is unfair on defendants. You could argue that they’ve made their beds and have to lie in them, if you can’t do the crime don’t do the time and so on, but acquisitive crime is probably generally connected to poverty and/or drug addiction will not be eased by forcing defendants to travel miles from home for every court hearing.

It’s a tax on criminals – the money the Government has saved by shutting local courts has been passed onto people using the legal system, though it’s not just criminals who have to travel, it’s the witnesses and lawyers.

The courts were also clearly at breaking point before the pandemic thanks to cuts in the name of austerity and, rather like the NHS, it is apparent that when a service is cut to the bone it cannot survive a crisis such as covid.

It is perhaps understandable that cases took a while to get to court over lockdown but now things are returning to normal cases are still being adjourned until a long time in the future. We’ve got one this week, adjourned to 2022.

Again, making beds and lying in them, but if you commit a petty offence and have to wait over a year to be dealt with it’s a little unfair. And what happens if you commit another offence? If you steal a bottle of whisky from Morrison’s and get fined £50, and then steal another bottle a year later, you might only be fined another £50, but if you were on bail, having waited a year for the theft to come to court you’d be in breach of your bail and could in theory be remanded into custody. Many petty thieves must have this hanging over their heads.

This backlog and all the cuts is why the new proposals for “law and order” have not gone down particularly well within the justice system. With legal aid unavailable for many, lengthy court delays and the courts regularly hit by factors preventing cases going ahead, it seems laughable that the Government is only proposing making people serving community service wear high vis jackets. It’s not a solution to anything (and presumably if they’re working on roadsides, they have to wear them anyway for health and safety reasons).

Whatever, the local element of justice has been lost, and if you commit a petty crime locally you may end up travelling to Warrington, which means no local reporters to report the mitigating factors in your case.

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