Call for urgent halt to closure of local courts

Northallerton Magistrates' Court is currently at risk of closure
Northallerton Magistrates' Court is currently at risk of closure

SENIOR legal figures have called for a halt to the ongoing fire sale of Yorkshire’s court buildings, saying it poses a fundamental threat to the principles of open justice.

The region has lost a third of its courts since 2010, as ministers grapple with major cuts to justice budgets. Now with the fate of another magistrates’ court in North Yorkshire currently hanging in the balance, and Government ambitions to further reduce the number of buildings in the years to come, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, has called for an urgent pause to the programme.

Richard Miller, the society’s head of justice, said there should be an immediate assessment of the effect of the closures so far before any more went ahead.

He warned an increasing number of criminal court hearings were failing to go ahead because the defendant had failed to make the long journey to court.

He said the closure of courts also meant they were far less accessible to members of the public wishing to watch proceedings.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “There is no doubt that if you had a particular interest in a local matter and it was going to be heard in a court 30 miles away, you might well think twice about going.”

Meanwhile, with court services being increasingly centralised in larger towns and cities, rural campaigners have warned their communities are being unfairly hit. Cecilia Motley, chairman of the Rural Services Network, said: “Access to justice is a fundamental right, no matter where somebody lives.”

John Bache, JP, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said it was right that some under-used courts had been closed to save public money from being wasted, but he would have concerns if the closure programme went much further. He said: “There was a time when every little town had its own court, which just isn’t practical these days, but we don’t want to get to a situation where there are courts in Leeds, York and Sheffield and that’s it.”

The Ministry of Justice said the Government was investing more than £1bn to reform and modernise the courts system in England and Wales and decrease reliance on physical buildings.

A spokeswoman said since 2016, it had raised £115 million by selling under-used courts, “and every penny of this will be reinvested as part of our modernisation plans”. She said: “As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary.”