The government has opted to reprieve Cambridge Magistrates’ Court after completing its latest review of the courts estate – but seven other sites are to close. HM Courts and Tribunals Service today confirmed that the following buildings will be shut and alternative provision found at the nearest court facilities:
- Banbury Magistrates’ and County Court
- Blackfriars Crown Court
- Chorley Magistrates’ Court
- Fleetwood Magistrates’ Court
- Maidenhead Magistrates’ Court
- Northallerton Magistrates’ Court
- Wandsworth County Court
The decision follows a consultation opened in January which attracted more than 700 responses, with the government insisting all courts were assessed on the basis of ensuring access to justice, value for money and the ability to offer efficiency in the long term.
Cambridge survives because of its location within a large and well-connected city and new evidence suggesting closure would not provide sufficient value for money. Unlike the seven condemned courts which are freeholds owned by HMCTS, Cambridge is on a long finance lease with restrictions on use, with the financial case therefore unable to be made.
Northallerton, which serves a particularly rural community, will not close until video facilities are made available in the town.
Lord chancellor David Gauke said: ‘All money raised from the sale of these buildings will be reinvested into the justice system, and we want to reassure communities that those affected by closures will have access to alternative courts. We must ensure we use public money effectively and make decisions in the best interest of the wider justice system.’
HMCTS said travel times and distances to the nearest courts were ‘thoroughly considered’ before final decisions were made.
Ministers expect fewer physical hearings to be necessary with the growth of online dispute resolution, digital file handling, video hearings and online pleas for minor offences.
The government around £108m has been spent on capital maintenance to improve the existing courts estate. Around £115m has been raised from the sales of buildings to reinvest in the wider reform programme.
Jacqui Appleton, a partner at Cambridge firm Shelley & Co, who spoke in open court in opposition to the original closure plan for the city's magistrates' court, said all users will welcome the lord chancellor's decision to reprieve it.
'The support from the local community in responding to the proposed closure has been overwhelming,' she said. 'The importance of local justice, for local people, by local people, cannot be understated. It is hoped that Cambridge Magistrates' Court will return to its previous full time sitting hours and local cases, that have been dispersed throughout the county in recent years, will return to the city, and reduce delays in summary trials, increase efficiency and save costs to the public purse.'
The Law Society reacted critically to the announcement. President Christina Blacklaws said: 'We are pleased that our arguments against closing Cambridge Magistrates’ Court have been listened to and that the court is being kept open. We do not agree with the other court closures while HMCTS are still deciding on the future estates model for courts and tribunals. HMCTS should now pause all court closures until they have decided on the future of the courts and tribunals estates.'
On the future of Northallerton Magistrates’ Court, she said: 'We do not believe video hearings will be suitable for all cases. Video links could create a two tier justice system. Defendants using the video link are treated differently to those physically present, as they have less time with their solicitors before their cases are called on. Only having a video link option for such a large region such as Northallerton, instead of a physical court building is not a long term solution.
'Also, It’s becoming clear that legitimate court closures are not going to generate the funds HMCTS needs for the reform programme and this needs to be addressed.'