The proposed closure of Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court will deepen the inequalities in the justice system , says The Law Society.
The Society, which reflects the views of solicitors, has recommended the court stays open, stating the closure will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said there would be an adverse impact on the community, the justice system and the legal profession as a result.
“The proposed closure of Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court and County Court will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court, and the closures will more adversely affect people with disabilities and lower income families,“ he said.
“Combined with the further planned increases in court fees and reductions in eligibility for legal aid, this closure will serve to deepen the inequalities in the justice system between those who can and cannot afford to pay.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access legal advice and the justice system.”
The Ministry of Justice is consulting on its plans to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales including Hartlepool’s court.
The proposed court closures are aimed at addressing court buildings that are not fully used, with a focus on greater use of technology through video and telephone conferencing to make savings. Hartlepool’s court building was said to have used 47 per cent of its total capacity in 2014-15.
If the court was to close, cases would be dealt with by Teesside Magistrates’ and County Court, in Middlesbrough. The extra travelling distance and cost to defendants, victims and families is one of the reasons why objectors say it should not happen.
The MoJ consultation acknowledges that Teesside Magistrates’ Court would need additional work in order to accommodate the Social Security and Child Support Tribunal (SSCS) work from Hartlepool County Court and to create an additional waiting room.
It has not specified the likely cost of this work.
The Law Society says the court is used more than the average in England and Wales and has said it is “questionable” whether closing this court would realise the financial benefit that MoJ anticipates.
It says the consultation paper states that Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court and County Court is a leasehold property and has a 99-year lease until 2075.
Closing the building –owned by Hartlepool Borough Council – would result in the MoJ having to break the lease, which would simply transfer the costs to the local authority.
n Further background to the proposal can be accessed at https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/proposal-on-the-provision-of-court-and-tribunal-es