IAIN WRIGHT: Closing Hartlepool courts won’t save any money

Hartlepool Law Courts, incorporating Hartlepool Magistrates' Court.
Hartlepool Law Courts, incorporating Hartlepool Magistrates' Court.

Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is due for closure. It is one of 91 courts and tribunal services across England and Wales that is subject to consultation for closure.

The consultation opened in late July, as Parliament was due to undertake its summer recess.

The consultation ends on October 8, which is before Parliament returns from the conference recess.

The two weeks in September where the House of Commons was sitting was the only opportunity for Parliament to have its say on this big programme of closures – nearly a quarter of all magistrates’ rooms across the country are scheduled for closure.

I got together with the Conservative MP for Bath, whose court is also due to close, to initiate a debate on the matter.

The whole point of the exercise is for government to save money. It is estimated that management of the court estate costs about half a billion pounds a year.

However, I argued in the Parliamentary debate that it is unlikely the closure of Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court would save any money.

Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is fully compliant with disability and equality legislation. Other courts scheduled for closure are not.

However, the proposed move to Teesside Magistrates’ Court in Middlesbrough would need money spending to create an additional waiting room and a disabled access door.

The Government wishes to raise money by selling off some of the courts that are owned. That’s not the case with Hartlepool.

The court is in a building owned by Hartlepool Borough Council. The court leases the building and the lease has 60 years of a 99-year lease. How much will it cost to break the lease?

I argued that the closure would merely pass financial pressure from one part of the public sector – the courts – to another – the local authority.

It doesn’t save any money or generate any cash from selling off the building.

The Government also claims that courts are not being used as much as they should, being used for less than half the available time.

Those 91 courts scheduled for closure are used on average a third of the time.

The minister said he wants to see courts reach the 50 per cent figure, although it remains unclear whether this will be one of the factors used to decide which courts will close.

However, I asked a Parliamentary question about the time used. Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is used for 49% of the time.

This is higher than the average in England and Wales. With the exception of one other court – Wakefield – Hartlepool has the highest use of any court proposed for closure in the north of England. That doesn’t seem a fair thing.

What also doesn’t seem fair is the impact on innocent victims and those giving evidence.

The consultation on the proposed move to Teesside states that there are “excellent road, rail and bus links”.

Whoever wrote that was either having a laugh at victims’ success or doesn’t know the provision of public transport in the area.

The consultation stresses that nobody should be inconvenienced from the closure by travelling more than an hour.

However, the government also has to admit that this not met by the closure of Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court.

At the moment, 99 per cent of those attending the court can get there by public transport within an hour.

The consultation says that by moving to Teesside, 91 per cent of people will take between one and two hours. That can’t be fair.

I also mentioned in the debate a more general concern, shared by many in Hartlepool, that in common with other small towns, Hartlepool runs the risk of becoming a ghost town.

The movement of hospital services and the closure of shops sets in train a process which naturally causes concern that there will be no facilities in the town.

Is this modern life, and how does this impact on people with no access to a car, or who is not able to travel outside of town?

If you are bothered by this proposal, please have your say at: estatesconsultation@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk by October 8 or drop me your concerns and I’ll forward them on.