Newcastle upon Tyne Law Society has condemned proposals to ‘downgrade’ the city’s magistrates’ court, claiming that a new consultation spells the ‘death knell for access to justice’ in the area.
In a consultation document sent to judges, solicitors’ firms and magistrates, the Ministry of Justice has proposed a shake-up of six magistrates’ courts across the north-east.
Proposals include moving several services out of Newcastle Magistrates’ Court and transferring them elsewhere in the region.
The MoJ said it wanted to ensure that the court system was ‘just, proportionate and accessible’.
Under the proposals, all not-guilty anticipated plea and guilty anticipated plea cases will be moved from Newcastle to North Tyneside Magistrates’ Court in North Shields. Most cases conducted through video-links with prisons will also be moved.
The court has already stopped hearing custody and remand cases because of the closure of the court cells.
According to the local law society, the new shake-up will restrict access to justice even further following previous court closures.
In 2011, Tynedale Magistrates’ Court in Hexham was closed. According to the society, the MoJ said at the time that cases could be heard in Newcastle. However custody and remand cases are now being transferred to Bedlington and North Shields – some 30 miles away.
Lewis Pearson, president of Newcastle upon Tyne Law Society, told the Gazette no account had been taken of travel arrangements, particularly for juvenile or disabled defendants. ‘We see this as a precursor for the closure of the court and at least a winding down of services,’ he said.
‘It would be an embarrassment if Newcastle were to be the only major city without a magistrates’ court,’ said Brian Hegarty, partner at David Gray Solicitors.