Lawyers using the busiest court in England that is earmarked for closure have pleaded with lord chancellor Michael Gove to reconsider his decision.
Chichester Combined Court is set for closure despite a 78% usage rate during 2014/15. It is the only Crown court in West Sussex, a county with a population of more than 800,000 people.
Local lawyers, along with their counterparts at other sites across England and Wales, have spent the summer organising responses to the Ministry of Justice consultation and are aghast that their court is among the 91 earmarked for closure.
‘It is a spectacularly busy court – a lot of the time we can’t even get in to see judges,’ said Sara-Jayne Fildes, president of Chichester District Law Society.
‘Most people here believe it’s actually used more than 78% of the time. Other courts will not be able to cope with the volume of work transferred.’
The combined court, situated next to the city’s railway station, has two Crown courtrooms, and two civil and family hearing rooms. The Crown court has six cells, all of which are currently operational.
Fildes speculated that property prices in Chichester and the value of the city centre court site were bigger factors behind the proposal than the issue of demand.
The government’s impact assessment said criminal work can be moved to Crown courts in Lewes or Portsmouth, with county court work moving to Brighton, Lewes, Eastbourne and Hastings.
Bill Emerson, of Chichester’s Pallant Chambers, said journey times calculated by MoJ staff are ‘wholly inaccurate’ and ignore the fact that court users will be travelling at peak times and to built-up sites which attract thousands of tourists. Public transport times and costs have also been underestimated, he argued.
Many cases involve victims of domestic abuse and other vulnerable clients, he said, who are already nervous about attending court and would be even more stressed by travelling further.
Emerson agreed with Fildes on the level of demand and bemoaned a ‘failure to properly resource the courts’ by providing additional benches or judges to sit. ‘There will be no local justice or access to justice for a large proportion of the residents of West Sussex, creating a legal desert,’ he said.
The MoJ says the 1930-built site has problems with disabled access, security issues, cramped waiting areas and poor toilet facilities. All of these issues would be better addressed through facilities in the proposed alternative courts, it said. Operating costs for the freehold building in 2014/15 were £274,000.