Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is to close early next year.
The decision, announced by the Government yesterday, has been described as a major blow to the town.
The building, in Victoria Road, has been given a provisional closing date of between January and March and, from then, defendants, witnesses, family members, solicitors and police will all have to travel 12 miles to Teesside Magistrates’ Court in Middlesbrough.
The move is part of a nationwide programme of closures following a review by HM Courts and Tribunal Service into what it says is the underuse of buildings and the need to save money.
The building is owned by Hartlepool Borough Council and provided on a long term lease.
Council leader, Councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher, said: “This is a major blow to the town and is a further demonstration that the Government is paying scant regard to local people and access to justice, generally.
“On the one hand it advocates localism, but they then take vital services away from local communities.
“The decision to close our Magistrates’ Court and County Court early next year is without justification, contrary to the weight of arguments put forward for the retention of these courts in Hartlepool and will seriously undermine and erode access to the civil and criminal justice systems to the detriment of many.”
His sentiments were shared by MP Iain Wright.
He said: “This is a disappointing, although not unexpected outcome for the town’s magistrates’ courts. The Government’s attitude to towns like Hartlepool over the last few years has been nothing short of contemptuous.
“It will be difficult, if not impossible to get the Government to change its mind over the closure of the town’s magistrates’ court, but I intend to see if there is the potential of a last-minute change of heart.
“However, the Government has refused to listen to the reasoned arguments of many people from the town on this matter, and I’m afraid I think they will fail to listen again.”
Peter Bowes, deputy bench chairman of Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court, said he and new bench chairman Martin Slimings would meet with court managers to make sure people from Hartlepool can still access local justice.
Mr Bowes said: “I am disappointed that the arguments against Hartlepool’s closure do not seem to have convinced those involved in the consultation process.”
Gordon Goddard, of the Town of Hartlepool Challenge group, which launched a website in support of the court, said: “My initial reaction was shock and disbelief that again that the people of Hartlepool’s voices haven’t been heard.
“We are hearing more and more how people feel isolated with regard to public services and this is another big blow.”
Mr Goddard said poor public transport links mean many people will struggle to get to the Teesside court in the time the government claims.
He urged people to still sign an online petition at petition.parliament.uk adding: “Until the door closes we will keep saying Hartlepool needs our magistrates’ court.”
North East Euro MEP Jonathan Arnott said: “Justice should be seen to be done in the local community by local magistrates but year after year the justice system is being eroded.
“And this is happening while crime has gone up 22% in the Cleveland authority area.
“Closing down this court is sending out completely the wrong message.”
He added: “Hartlepool’s county court is also to close as is Morpeth’s and that will also cause inconvenience all round.”