I recently paid a visit to one of only two courthouses still dispensing justice in Gloucestershire. It was not an experience I would recommend – unless, of course, you are compelled to go for legal reasons.
Like post offices, pubs and village schools, local courthouses are gradually being consigned to the history books. When I tried to recall how many there used to be in Gloucestershire, it was difficult to remember them all. Certainly, magistrates in Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud, Coleford and Stow-on-the-Wold had their own building with each of them housing multiple court rooms.
Now, only Cheltenham remains to service the Crown Court in Gloucester and it is clear that both have seen better days.
I should point out that I exempt the staff from criticism. By its very nature, it is a challenging job under any circumstances, but those I met in Cheltenham manage to rise above their jaded working conditions - even though what seem perfectly reasonable requests for such modest accessories as a water cooler and television for the waiting room, which might reduce the general stress level for victims, defendants and witnesses alike, constantly fall on deaf ears.
The law is one of the basic pillars of a civilised society. Every individual has the inalienable right to a fair hearing whenever the situation demands and there is no doubt that Cheltenham Magistrates' Court offers some of the most used services in the public sector ranging from criminal cases to family justice and personal rights. Sadly, the loss of our other courthouses means that our access to those rights is being eroded as it appears another public service is squeezed.
My overriding concern is that this is a trend that could turn out to be irreversible, particularly as both magistrates and crown court buildings are showing their age. It might only take an unscheduled breakdown in the heating system in winter or a failure of IT at any time for proceedings to be switched to Bristol. An economic case would then be made, based on the bottom line, and there would be no return.
Does it matter? Well, I think it does. On a practical level, Gloucestershire is a big county where public transport is often sporadic, especially in rural areas, making the ability to dispense justice locally indispensable. Modern communications should enable us to make it easier for witnesses to give their evidence in more hospitable conditions away from opposing witnesses and without having to wade through piles of discarded cigarette ends at the court entrance.
Courts are a physical manifestation of the law, one of the successes of democracy and should be a focus for civic pride. In holding offenders to account, courts should also be a source of reassurance for victims, somewhere they go to gain satisfaction for a wrong done to them.
Gloucestershire cannot be allowed to slip off the judicial map. While district court houses, like local police stations, are gone forever, my solution would be one brand new court house for Gloucestershire, dealing with all areas of the law, probably in Gloucester.