Economies take a hit when court buildings close

Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society

THE ECONOMIES of towns, cities and their rural surroundings feel the knock-on economic effects of court closures for many years, MPs and business leaders have warned.

The closures so far have led to the justice system in Yorkshire and the Humber being increasingly centralised into its larger cities and towns, with places such as Halifax, Goole, Pontefract, Selby, Rotherham and Scunthorpe now without any courts at all.

The Law Society’s head of justice, Richard Miller, said that solicitors’ firms were often the first to be hit when courts closed.

He said: “Solicitors tend to make sure they are located close to the courts and the police stations and both are currently being consolidated at the moment, so solicitors are finding that they can’t keep open their branch offices in towns and cities which have lost their courts and they are having to relocate nearer the courts.

“Of course, that takes with it other services that the solicitor provided.”

He said residents of a town could find themselves losing local access to legal advice about consumer matters, conveyancing or other non-court issues when solicitors were forced to move away.

Mr Miller said in calling for an urgent moratorium on court closures, he wanted the Ministry of Justice to properly assess the impact of this “access to justice more broadly”.

As well as the loss of a large local employer, and the businesses which rely on it, critics say the empty buildings themselves can prove a blight on the towns’ economies if no new occupant is found.

Keighley Magistrates’ Court, which was based not in Keighley but in nearby Bingley, is still sat empty many years after its closure in 2011.

It has now been put up for sale, packaged with the recently-closed police station next door, which has links to the court through the cells.

Local MP Philip Davies had raised his concern about the long-vacant site in Parliament, arguing that the £5,000-a-month cost of mothballing the building could well exceed its eventual sale price.

The Tory MP for Shipley told The Yorkshire Post he understood the Government’s reasons for wanting to wait for a decision on the future of the police station before putting the building up for sale.

But he said it had done nothing for the town’s economy to have an empty, decaying building in its centre for all these years.

He said: “You just can’t afford, in a place like Bingley, to have empty buildings sat there doing nothing and decaying.

“I didn’t want the court to close, or the police station to close for that matter, but given that they have, it is important that they are brought back into use as quickly as possible to generate some sort of economic activity.”

Of the 19 court buildings which have closed so far in Yorkshire and the Humber, half have been in West Yorkshire.

Pontefract was one of a handful of places to lose not one but two court buildings.

Its MP, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, said: “Towns such as Pontefract, Rotherham and Halifax have been hit the hardest by these court closures, pushing people out towards the cities.”

She said taking away courts only served to “hollow out what is left in our towns”.

She added: “Local people who have been victims or witnesses of crimes or anti-social behaviour made it very clear to me when they closed the courts in Pontefract that they don’t want to travel all the way to cities such as Wakefield or Leeds to get justice.”

The North and West Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce has expressed concern over the impact of closures on the footfall within town and city centres.

A spokesman said: “It is important that we retain vibrancy within our towns and city centres if they are to compete in an increasingly digital world.

“Whilst the loss of jobs in these locations is a concern, it is important that we are able to repurpose vacant buildings and ensure commercial activity is retained within them.

“Likewise, access to justice should not depend on where somebody lives.”