Courts shake-up fears leads Lancashire magistrate to quit his role

Bob Hutchinson has resigned as a magistrate in protest
Bob Hutchinson has resigned as a magistrate in protest
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A major shake-up of the courts in Lancashire could see the county’s seven magistrates’ benches merge into one.

The Government plans have been blasted by some in the judicial system – with one senior magistrate walking out in protest.

Fears: Bob Hutchinson has spoken out about the merger of magistrates' benches in Lancashire

Fears: Bob Hutchinson has spoken out about the merger of magistrates' benches in Lancashire

The former deputy chairman of the Blackpool and Fylde magistrates’ bench said the proposed merger, which was put forward as a cost-saving measure, will make the courts more inefficient.

He warned the plans – which do not impact any of the existing courthouses – would see defendants and magistrates travelling further as hearings could take place in any one of Lancashire’s current local justice areas.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said its proposal, which will be put before the Lord Chancellor for approval, will make the system more flexible.

Bob Hutchinson, who resigned after 11 years as a magistrate in Lancashire last month, said the plans were strongly opposed by the majority of Lancashire magistrates, who fear the plans would be counter-productive.

You’re talking about the potential, when people commit offences in Blackpool, they could be sent to Burnley or Ormskirk.

Bob Hutchinson

The 60-year-old added: “You’re talking about the potential, when people commit offences in Blackpool, they could be sent to Burnley or Ormskirk.

“How are they going to get there? They have got no money, a lot of these people.”

He said the plans will end up costing more in travel expenses and lead to more missed hearings and wasted court time.

He added that all but one of the county’s magistrates’ benches was opposed to the idea of a single bench for Lancashire.

His concerns have previously been echoed by independent think tank Policy Exchange, which warned in a paper published last year of the “threat to local justice” from court closures and centralisation of services.

Mr Hutchinson said it ran against the basic principals of summary justice that punishments should be handed out locally by people living in the area where the offence was committed.

An HMCTS spokesman said: “A formal consultation was held on proposals to reduce the number of local justice areas (LJAs) in Lancashire from seven to three, two or one.

“Following this it was decide to reduce them to one, subject to the views of the Senior Presiding Judge and Ministerial approval.

“Of those magistrates who responded to the consultation, two thirds wanted the number of LJAs reduced. The merger will have no impact on court sittings or where cases are held.

“The reasons for the proposed merger are to improve the effective delivery of justice by increasing flexibility to deal with cases and increase the opportunities for magistrates to retain experience and thus competence in all areas of work.”

“If approved the merger will come into force on 1 April 2016.”