On Llandeilo’s newly restored Town Council is a plaque. It records that the building, now housing the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, was once a “Town Council, Police Station and Magistrates’ Court”.
Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, wants us to go back to that old tradition. He wants courts held in town halls, community councils and other public buildings. He wants video links and remote access. He wants he court service to be more flexible. On that, he is right.
Courts serve the public. They should fit in much more closely with the public’s needs. They should open in the evenings and at weekends. We need to get cases before them much faster.
If someone breaks into your garden shed they should be before a court in days. It takes months at the moment. If you are a victim of crime who wants to move on, you suffer while you wait. The same is true, possibly more so, if you are falsely accused and want to clear your name. Justice delayed is justice denied.
In Dyfed Powys 90% of cases are minor offences like this which can be tried by magistrates.
If your shed was broken into today it would take an average of 171 days, around 6 months, for your case to appear in court. It could take over a year. Half of all cases do not go ahead on the day originally planned.
If you have been a victim of domestic abuse you have to continue your life while you wait, with your abuser still at large.
That is simply not good enough. But it will get worse if courts like Brecon and Carmarthen are simply shut without fundamental reform to how they are administered.
Closing courts will pull justice further away from our remote communities. That must not happen. Rural communities must not suffer unfairly. They do not need to, with proper reform and accountability in our court service. But that reform is not evident yet.
If we want justice to stay local, where we can see it and reach it, we need local control. At the moment decisions are made in Whitehall or Cardiff. No wonder Brecon and Carmarthen drop off the map.
I made bringing people to justice a priority after my election in 2012. Some crimes were not recorded and too many avoided proper justice. We now record 19% more crimes and use 10% fewer cautions. That means we can give more victims their day in court.
If that good work is not to be lost as courts close, we need joined up local decisions. That is why I believe the government, in pursuit of its aims, should devolve court budgets to Police and Crime Commissioners. They can ensure everyone works to the same priorities, hold bureaucracies to account and insist on a better service to the public.
We have a great opportunity to fix one of the most neglected parts of our justice administration. Shutting courts alone will not work. Strengthening accountability and allowing local flexibility will.
Then we can return courts to being places of civic pride. Who knows, one day we might see plaques which read: “This building was Brecon’s Town Hall, Video Court and Community Centre”, though they will be virtual holograms, of course.
My survey for Dyfed Powys residents on local policing and justice is here (justice questions follow the police station questions).