Plans to close a Magistrates’ court in North Yorkshire would seriously disadvantage defendants, victims and witnesses living in rural parts of the county, a government Minister has claimed.
Richmond MP and Housing Minister Rishi Sunak has formally opposed plans to close Northallerton Magistrates’ Court and transfer its work to York, Skipton, Harrogate and Teesside.
He spoke out after North Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan announced she was opposing the move and said it officials had failed to properly consider the effect it would have on residents and organisations such as the police.
The Ministry of Justice unveiled the plan in January and has published a consultation to gather views on the proposal to consolidate and improve the efficiency of courts in the area.
It says that if any courts close, “every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable”.
The consultation document states in the 2016/17 financial year, the operating costs of the court were about £140,000 and the court sat for 1,474 hours out of a possible 3,810 available hours.
It contains fundamental misunderstandings about the impact on both the public of North Yorkshire and the organisations that deliver criminal justice in the county.Julia Mulligan criticises the plan to close Northallerton Magistrates’ Court
The proposed closure is part of what the Government has described as a “£1 billion investment” in the process of reforming court and tribunal services throughout the country. Proceeds from the sale of the 1937 building on Racecourse Lane would go contribute to this investment.
Northallerton Magistrates’ Court serves an area stretching across a vast section of England’s largest county and objections to the closure have included the length of time it would take both the public and justice organisations to travel to other courts.
After meeting Justice Minister Lucy Frazer, Mr Sunak wrote to her outlining his reasons for opposing the proposals.
These include the effect on people living in the Yorkshire Dales and parts of the North York Moors who would be seriously disadvantaged by the time and distances involved in reaching the remaining courts.
He added in a statement that the court “has excellent facilities and is understood to be the only magistrates’ court in the county to be fully compliant with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act”.
In his letter, published yesterday, Mr Sunak further says that public confidence in the consultation process has been undermined by significant mistakes in the initial document. These included incorrect travel times for public transport links and geographical references to ‘Teesside in North Yorkshire’.
He added that the travel times analysis in the consultation document looked like a “paper exercise divorced from the reality of getting about in this deeply rural part of the UK”.
Mr Sunak said he “very much disagreed” with the consultation document’s description of the Northallerton court building as out-of-date and not fit for purpose. He added: “The facilities there are actually very good.”
The ten-week consultation process on the proposal closes at the end of this month.
Mr Sunak says North Yorkshire County Council will shortly submit its objection.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “This government is investing over £1billion to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer.
“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 to provide effective access to justice.
“Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable.”
Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan said she was “deeply concerned” about the proposal, and urged Ministers to consider an alternative.
She said the plan “contains fundamental misunderstandings about the impact on both the public of North Yorkshire and the organisations that deliver criminal justice in the county”.
Mrs Mulligan added: “I wrote to the minister as soon as the consultation was announced back in January, highlighting my concerns – some of which have been addressed...I also suggested that the consultation be put on hold to enable us to work with the Ministry of Justice to develop an alternative.”