A fundamental plank of English justice is that is should be seen to be done. Charlotte Moreau reports on changes to the courts system in Herefordshire that threaten that treasured principle
THE peace of a spring evening was ripped apart for Jacky Herschy when she was told of the death of her sister in a car crash.
Susan Thatcher, 67, had been travelling from her Shrewsbury home to her sister’s in Leominster’s Broad Street when her Octavia was hit by a BMW travelling in the opposite direction.
Emergency services rushed to the scene on the A49 near Leominster, but Mrs Thatcher – a retired GP practice manager and dedicated Save the Children branch chair – was confirmed dead at the scene.
The occupants of the BMW were both trapped and were airlifted to major trauma centres, while the driver and passenger of the third car escaped uninjured.
Mrs Herschy and the rest of her family, who had been awaiting her sister’s arrival that evening on May 13, 2018, received the devastating news hours after the crash.
That dreadful night was just the start of a painful saga for Mrs Herschy and her family as they struggled with their grief and the legal proceedings that followed when the BMW driver, Carl Smith, 28, of Brimfield, Ludlow, was charged with causing Mrs Thatcher’s death by dangerous driving.
Mrs Herschy, a secondary school teacher, was determined to see justice done, all the while trying to support her 97-year-old father, who had been taken to hospital with heart failure the day after Susan’s funeral.
But she swiftly became frustrated by the justice system.
Smith pleaded guilty on October 2, 2019, and the case was sent to the crown court for sentencing. The case was initially to be heard in Hereford, but was later moved to Worcester.
Mrs Herschy, who had produced a statement to explain to the court the effect of Smith’s actions on her family, went on behalf of her desperately unwell father and family to see the man responsible for her sister’s death jailed for six years and four months on November 14, 2019.
“It was stressful. Being unfamiliar with the town and the proceedings was difficult,” she said.
“The weather was appalling and I had to go through a lot of flood water on the A44, which was shut by the time I came home in the evening.
Mrs Herschy and her family are unlikely to be alone in finding it difficult to witness at first-hand justice being done in Herefordshire.
Although many minor cases are dealt with by magistrates in Hereford, more serious offences are increasingly being handled in Worcestershire.
Remand hearings, which involve people who are kept in custody until the date of their hearing, have been routinely sent to Kidderminster since 2018, while crown court trials and sentencing hearings go to Worcester.
In July that year, Herefordshire Council had unanimously agreed to call on the Secretary of State for Justice to “right a wrong” after the number of remand courts in West Mercia was slashed from five to one.
The council said it deplored the move, which Councillor Chris Chappell at the time said was counter to principles of local democracy and local application of justice.
He said local solicitors would face a 70-mile round trip to attend, while those appearing in court, who might have limited income, would be released in Kidderminster if it were found there is no case to answer.
They would then face a difficult journey back – with no direct public transport route between Kidderminster and Hereford – at their own expense.
Sending all remand cases to Kidderminster has also drawn heavy criticism from West Mercia’s Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion, who is concerned that a police force area the size of West Mercia, which covers Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire, only has one remand court.
Hereford still has a crown court (which sits at the Shirehall), but it is a ‘satellite’ of Worcester, meaning the vast majority of cases deemed too serious to be dealt with by magistrates in Hereford are all listed for Worcester Crown Court.
Figures show Hereford Crown Court was in session for 193 days between January 2019 and January 2020, but just seven cases sent for trial by Hereford Magistrates Court were heard there during that period, while 16 were heard at Worcester Crown Court.
A further 25 cases from Hereford Magistrates Court were also sent to crown court so the defendant could be sentenced (crown court judges have greater sentencing powers than magistrates). But the Ministry of Justice does not record whether they went to Hereford or Worcester.
A one-way trip from Hereford Crown Court to Worcester Crown Court is 28 miles, and will take about 50 minutes.
By rail, an any time day return costs £14.30, a cost that could easily mount up and make travel difficult for both poorer victims and families whose loved ones are accused of offences to attend hearings, and for the accused themselves – who, it should be remembered, may eventually turn out to be innocent of any crimes.
The closure and centralisation of courts is of concern not just because of the treatment of those involved in cases. One of the cornerstones of British justice is that it should be open and publicly accessible, most commonly through newspaper reports.
For Mrs Herschy, it was a further blow that Smith’s court case and ultimate sentence went unreported in the Press, as is the case with other Herefordshire cases heard in Worcester.
She said that while many in Leominster knew her sister had been killed in a crash, few were told about the circumstances of her death and what happened to the man responsible, leaving the community unable to see that the circumstances had been examined and that Smith had been held accountable for his actions.
“The young men who drive round our town in their own cars at ridiculous speeds and the young men who steal cars and crash them into houses should not have the excuse that they did not know what the consequences might be,” Mrs Herschy said.
Hereford Times editor John Wilson said moving court cases like the one involving Carl Smith out-of-area puts newspapers in an impossible situation.
“We want to cover crown court cases, but simply do not have the resources to attend those outside our normal patch unless we know for sure the proceedings will be relevant to our readers.
“Unfortunately, Worcester Crown Court will not give us in advance the basic information we need (name, charges and, crucially, the address of the defendant) so we can make a decision about sending a reporter.”
Open justice campaigner Mark Hanna, emeritus fellow at the University of Sheffield and co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, has long argued the importance of transparency in courts
“People need to know what is happening in our courts, and how cases are dealt with. That is what open justice means,” he said. “Justice must be open and transparent if people are to trust it.
“Most people do not have time to attend courts to see them in action. So most people, to assess how courts are working, rely on journalists to report court cases.
“Journalists cannot cover every case, but the fewer they cover the less scrutiny there is of how courts operate.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the justice system has had to move swiftly to tackle the growing backlog of cases that built up as all but the most urgent cases were adjourned in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Ironically, this pressure may turn out to make the justice process more accessible.
The solution to the backlog was for many court hearings to go virtual, with those involved in court proceedings appearing in court by video link and journalists able to dial in remotely.
Eliminating the need for reporters to be in court in person to report on proceedings makes it much easier to ensure that cases are covered.
How the courts work
After a crime has been committed, police and the Criminal Prosecution Service work to decide whether there is enough evidence to formally charge a person with the offence.
Once charged, the suspected offender will be either released on bail, which may include conditions that must be obeyed, or remain in custody until their first hearing.
All first hearings take place in the magistrates’ court, and many will go no further – although there are some serious offences, such as grievous bodily harm and murder, which must go to the crown court.
If a guilty plea is entered in the magistrates’ court, the defendant will stand convicted and will either be sentenced by the magistrates or be sent to the crown court for sentencing by a judge, who had the power to impose more severe punishments.
Magistrates, who are trained volunteers assisted by a legal adviser, deal with crimes such as motoring offences and minor assaults, and can only hand down maximum custodial sentences of six months for a single offence, or a total of 12 months for more than one offence.
Judges must be qualified lawyers and usually have several years’ experience.
If a not guilty plea is entered, the case will proceed to trial, either in the magistrates court or in the crown court, where guilt or innocence will be determined by magistrates, or by a jury in the crown court.