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Future of rural court hangs in the balance

Northallerton Magistrates' Court
Northallerton Magistrates' Court

JUST three of the 21 courts in Yorkshire and the Humber earmarked for closure or integration into other facilities since May 2010 have been given a reprieve, meaning the odds for Northallerton Magistrates’ Court may not look promising.

The court in the North Yorkshire market town is one of eight in England and Wales announced as being at risk of closure in January this year, with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) saying the site is underutilised and does not meet the standards of a modern courthouse.

A 10-week public consultation has now closed, but not before local MPs, the county council and North Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner (PCC) all made the case for retaining the court. PCC Julia Mulligan met Ms Frazer to urge further local discussion before any decision is made, proposing Northallerton be kept open at least until the use of effective video-enabled technology is established.

“I have made it clear to the Minister that to close Northallerton Magistrates’ Court, as it stands, would seriously impact our ability to effectively deliver justice to some of our remotest communities in the Dales and on the Moors,” she said.

“If the court is to be closed, I will continue to urge the Minister to delay, so that we have the time to develop a practical and realistic alternative.”

The Justice Select Committee has also sounded the alarm about the “worrying” travel times that Northallerton’s court users could face if the facility were to close, with its chairman, Conservative MP and barrister Bob Neill, writing to Ms Frazer to point out that someone from Richmond would face a one-way journey of between two hours and 22 minutes and three hours and 22 minutes to get to alternative courts by public transport.

Back in 2010 the axe fell on nine of the region’s courthouses, but Skipton’s Magistrates’ Court and County Court were both spared. Barnsley County Court also got a partial reprieve, being incorporated into the town’s magistrates’ court building rather than lost altogether.

In each case, the strength of campaigning and the arguments put forward were credited locally with ensuring HMCTS was persuaded to think again.

The issue of public access to justice, particularly for people in some of our most rural communities, is at the forefront of many objectors’ minds when it comes to the latest proposed closure.

Northallerton is 32 miles from York and Harrogate and 46 miles from Skipton, the three locations to which cases could be transferred without crossing local justice area lines.

Teesside Magistrates’ Court in Middlesbrough has also been suggested by HMCTS as an option for cases from the Richmond, Leyburn and Northallerton areas, even though it is in a different justice area and would mean lengthy public transport travel times for some court users.

In in its consultation document, HMCTS says the court cost £140,000 to run in 2016/17 when it sat for only 1,474 hours out of a possible 3,810 available. But it does not mention that the court’s caseload includes all the county’s traffic cases and a significant number of council cases due to its proximity to County Hall.

It also fails to mention refurbishment work undertaken in recent years or to provide concrete proposals on how the closure’s impact will be mitigated.

Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake said: “I’m hoping they’ll reconsider because I think there’s quite a lot of unanswered questions at this stage. We can all see the potential for technology to improve access to justice, but I think we need to see that proven, and tried and tested.”

He said he was still putting forward arguments for an alternative to closure and had suggested North Yorkshire be used for technology pilots so national assessments do not rely solely on their use in major metropolitan areas.

Although the consultation phase has now finished, no timescale has been given for the final decision on the court’s fate.

The consultation document states that “any resulting impacts are a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of a modernised, efficient court and tribunal service”, so the future of Northallerton Magistrates’ Court clearly rests on whether those objecting have done enough to prove otherwise.