Kevin Hollinrake: Rural Yorkshire doesn't deserve to be court short

I AM all for efficiencies but there are times when, instead of making effective savings, you run the risk of creating a false economy.

Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake.

Of course, we must always try to balance our public finances and have come a long way from the position the Conservative Chancellor inherited in 2010 when our annual day-to-day spending was in deficit by £100bn.

Today we are finally back in the black on this measure, and for the first time since 2001.

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Nonetheless, we need to make sure that any new policies, whilst potentially saving the taxpayer money, are fair to all wherever you live.

This is why I am concerned about the proposal to close Northallerton Magistrates Court and why we need to consider the advantages and the disadvantages.

The constituencies that the court serves are some of the largest and most rural in the UK so the closure presents many challenges because of the sheer distances involved, and the effects on some of my constituents, defendants, witnesses, court staff and magistrates would be significant and could have a very meaningful effect on access to justice.

The average age of my constituents is older than constituents living in urban areas; this, coupled with increasingly limited public transport, means that we have far more bus passes than we 
have buses.

If Northallerton was to close, it would increase journey times significantly as cases would then have to be heard in Harrogate, Skipton, York or possibly Middlesbrough.

This would double journey times for many people. A bus journey from Rosedale to York, for example, takes around three hours. Try getting there for a morning hearing – it is just not possible.

Then there’s the effect on police time when they are required to attend court, which I have discussed with the Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan.

The prior closure of custody suites in Northallerton means the police already have to drive to Harrogate to detain a suspect, which can take an extra hour, a clear disincentive to make an arrest.

So, we are at risk of creating a false economy by transferring costs from one budget to another, that is from the Ministry of Justice to the police.

There is also an effect on witnesses if they have to travel to courts that are hours away.

Having to travel early to get to a morning session is challenging. This, in turn, could mean fewer prosecutions are brought.

Magistrates, who are volunteers (and we need more of them), might be less attracted by the prospect of travelling to a court in Teesside, Harrogate, Skipton or York.

I have talked to many Justices of the Peace about this important issue, who also have very serious concerns.

For example, some defendants are vulnerable and suffer from mental health issues, so closing the Northallerton court could make it more likely that they do not attend, creating extra work for our police officers and making it more difficult for local people to access justice.

One magistrate who came to see me suggested that, instead of closing the court, it could be put to greater use.

After all, it is the most cost-efficient part of our judicial system, hearing 95 per cent of all criminal work yet accounting for only one per cent of the cost.

So why not open up the threshold for cases that can be heard in a magistrates’ court?

The current sentencing limit is six months but, if we increased that to 12 months, magistrates could hear many more cases, more cost-effectively.

I have met with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Lucy Frazer QC MP, seeking assurances these concerns will be taken into account.

I agree that technology might offer a solution, although we must evaluate this first to ensure that it delivers suitable access to justice in rural areas, prior to any closure.

The Ministry of Justice is willing to pursue options such as a video endpoint in 
Northallerton to ensure that local people can appear in other courts by video where appropriate.

I am not against that, but my concern is that the announcement of the potential closure, which is rightly subject to a consultation, is premature, and may be introduced before we have seen the results of the pilots.

I would welcome a trial of new ways of working in my area to see whether my concerns and those of many other people who have contacted me can be eased. I am happy to move with the times, but the policy must be fair and rural-proofed.

People in rural areas must have fair access to justice, just like everyone else.

Kevin Hollinrake is the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton.