Cuts to North Devon Magistrates’ Court are here to stay

Supporters of North Devon Magistrates' Court, pictured in August 2012 when the court cuts were first

Supporters of North Devon Magistrates' Court, pictured in August 2012 when the court cuts were first announced. - Credit: Archant

Council sub committee hears further cuts could be on the way when the new budget is announced.

CUTS to North Devon Magistrates’ Court introduced as a pilot last year will be made permanent, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has announced.

But North Devon Council’s crime and disorder sub committee heard today (Thurs) that further cuts could be on the way with the 2013/14 budget still to be announced.

Tim Smith, clerk to the justices, from HMCTS, warned that the budget would be less than this year’s, but the exact amount was unknown.

He said the new court matrix, which began on November 1 and means no criminal proceedings sit on a Wednesday or Thursday, will be reviewed every six months.

Since the pilot period began, overnight custody cases that would normally sit on those days have been heard at Exeter Magistrates’ Court.

From November 1 until March 9, a total of 41 defendants have had to travel to Exeter – 16 of which were remanded in custody or given a custodial sentence.

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Mr Smith acknowledged that the costs of the new court matrix would probably be felt mostly by the solicitors who had to travel to represent these defendants.

But he said the court had to work to a budget and run more efficiently in the time it had.

Mr Smith said: “We have got less money to spend because there’s less going on and there comes a point when you say, how can we continue to provide local justice?

“We could have taken it all to Exeter but we haven’t, we have only taken a tiny bit there.”

Several people at the meeting pointed out that up to four trials being listed a day had led to long waits for victims wanting to see justice.

Vicky Hemmingway, of North Devon Against Domestic Abuse, said victims of domestic violence have often waited months for trials, only to find quadruple listings meant they were further adjourned.

She said: “One woman had to wait three months for a trial to be listed, only for it to be adjourned at 4pm because so many other trials were listed on the day.

“Now she has to wait another three months for the trial to be listed again.”

Thor Beverely, of the North Devon Youth Offending Team, said some young people had also waited up to 98 days for a trial.

Mr Smith acknowledged that youth trials and those involving domestic violence were incidents that should be prioritised.

He said: “If we’re putting domestic violence trials off we need to look at that; that comes as a surprise to me, we need to stop that.”

Councillor Lesley Brown, chairman of the sub committee, asked Mr Smith to provide councillors with further reports on the changes to the court.

She said: “We want something back on a monthly basis, rather than leave it as long as it has been this time.”

The meeting was attended by around 20 members of the public, including solicitors, magistrates, representatives from probation and councillors not on the sub committee.

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