London - There was a time when criminals lived in fear of the long arm of the law. These days, however, it seems even those who want to be caught are potentially getting off.
A wanted man tried to hand himself in four times but was unable to do so because of court closures, his solicitor said on Wednesday.
The suspect, who has not been named, was being sought for failing to attend court after beaching a community order.
He tried on April 24 and 25 to hand himself in to West Mercia Police, but was told it was not possible because officers had not received notice of a warrant.
The man then tried to present himself to Telford magistrates’ court on April 26 and 30 – but was told the court no longer dealt with remand hearings. Steven Meredith, of WMB Law in Telford, said his client had been prevented from surrendering because of ‘scandalous and unbelievable’ changes in the way remand cases are now dealt with.
The case follows heavy criticism of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to move all remand hearings in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire to Kidderminster in Worcestershire.
Mr Meredith said when his client eventually succeeded in handing himself in he was held for more than 24 hours in Telford before being taken to Kidderminster, which is 26 miles away.
He says the situation could now see defendants who face a summons for driving offences held in the cells for up to a day when the offence would not normally result in any jail time. Mr Meredith’s client, who breached a community order for criminal damage, had not attended an initial hearing on the matter because he had missed the court letter sent to him.
"Previously he would have gone to court and they would have dealt with him within five to ten minutes," said the lawyer. "Or if they said it had to be dealt with in the police station he would have been able to walk through the tunnel and it would be dealt with within an hour."
The Shropshire Defence Solicitors’ Association wrote an open letter last week to local justices of the peace outlining their concerns over the changes.
It claimed that a magistrate had said some of his colleagues were refusing to travel to Kidderminster because of the distance. Stephen Scully, of Lanyon Bowdler Solicitors in Shrewsbury, said lawyers were looking at the legalities of the centralisation and if it could be challenged.
"The system is in chaos – it is pot luck justice," he said.
A magistrate, who wishes to remain anonymous, has called for the controversial arrangements to be scrapped and claimed justice was not being served properly.
He added: "By centralising the hearings in Kidderminster I think justice is not necessarily being dealt with effectively due to the difficulties people have attending elsewhere. It is not good for justice and it is not good for people.’ Earlier this month a spokesman for HM Courts and Tribunal Service defended the changes. He said: "Following a public consultation, remand cases were moved from Telford to Kidderminster magistrates’ court to improve listings and trial management at Telford."
"There is no evidence to suggest that there has been a significant increase in the numbers of defendants awaiting an available court, or that cases are not being heard within 24 hours."
West Mercia Police has put up a poster at its station in Worcester advising offenders of "the best time to hand yourself in". It said they should only hand themselves in at the station between 10pm and 4am to ensure they catch the daily transport to Kidderminster.