Holly Lynch: Happy Valley does not reflect courts controversy

Sarah Lancashire who played the lead role in television's Happy Valley.
Sarah Lancashire who played the lead role in television's Happy Valley.
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HALIFAX is unusual in that two courts are closing in my constituency. Both Calderdale Magistrates’ Court and Halifax County Court and Family Court, currently in two different buildings, will be closed and the majority of the workload transferred to Bradford.

Anyone who has seen the recent BBC series Happy Valley, which is set in my constituency, may be forgiven for thinking that there is surely enough criminal activity in Halifax to keep two courts busy processing criminals around the clock.

But, while thoroughly gripping television, Happy Valley is not an accurate portrayal of law and order across Calderdale. Back in the real world, and perhaps unlike other constituencies, we were prepared to work with the Government on the closure of one of our courts.

We recognised that efficiency savings could be made, and in a move predominantly led by the local magistrates’ bench we actively campaigned for a merging of the courts in a way that would deliver a cost saving to the Government while maintaining access to local justice.

However, the announcement that both courts would close revealed that the Government’s ambition for savings would not accommodate this proposal.

Like most MPs, fighting injustice is largely what motivates me to do this job, and I would argue that British values and our standing in the world are entwined with our fair and accessible justice system, which has paved the way for so many others around the world.

We never know when we might be a victim of crime or witness to one. We live in hope that we never have a family breakdown so serious that we require guidance from the family courts. Injustice takes many forms and the two courts in my patch play an essential role, not only in righting wrongs, but in resolving all manner of often difficult and sensitive disputes.

Our local authorities are cash-strapped, particularly in Calderdale, where the devastating Boxing Day floods, combined with other pressures, have placed an unprecedented burden on the budget, and I would be concerned if the Government were expecting local authorities to play a role in part-financing some of the changes that might be required.

I would be even more concerned if the Government were expecting the private sector to step in and introduce the technology required to mitigate the closure of the courts, in a way which will inevitably introduce a postcode lottery to accessing justice.

We have heard about challenges linked to mobile coverage and broadband cover, which would inevitably contribute to the postcode lottery.

I want to outline the impact that the closures will have on the local economy. The two courts in Halifax are located at the top end of the town centre and are surrounded by a number of law firms in what could be described as the legal quarter.

Like Wakefield, we have a post office due for closure in the same part of town. Back in October, I wrote to the Secretary of State of Justice, Michael Gove, signed by 13 representatives of law firms which, by no coincidence, are situated in close proximity to the courts.

Those law firms, paying rates, employing highly educated professionals and paying good wages in my constituency, are now considering their futures in Halifax.

Several are considering following the workload to Bradford and although I accept that there will still be clients in Halifax, will there be enough to keep all those jobs there? I reiterate once more that there is not as much work for lawyers in Halifax as Happy Valley might suggest.

With the court buildings closed, the potential for a number of surrounding offices to be empty as a result would not be at all healthy for that area of the town centre and would place quite a burden on the local authority in terms of regeneration.

Ultimately, like many of my colleagues, I am worried about how this will impact on those who are regular attenders at the courts.

Staff from social housing provider Pennine and representatives of the local authority – Calderdale Council, Calderdale Women’s Centre, police officers and youth offending services – are just some of the predominantly public services and charity organisations which stand 
to be inconvenienced by the closures.

Let us be clear. When I say “inconvenienced”, that means extended journey times, and therefore more costly journeys, and potentially extended periods out of the office dealing with court appearances or formalities. Inconvenience is a cost, and when we are dealing with public services, it is a cost ultimately picked up by the taxpayer.

I am looking for assurances from the Minister that the 
justice revolution is real and deliverable in the appropriate timeframe, and that consideration will be given to assisting local authorities in managing the closure of the courts and any resulting impact that this will have on town centres and on the businesses that relies on their proximity to the courts.

Holly Lynch is the Labour MP for Halifax who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on court closures. This is an edited version.