The news was confirmed last week that Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is to close. It is due to shut for good in January 2017. Other courts in the North, such as those in Consett, Morpeth, Wakefield and Rotherham, are also due to close, although they will do so earlier than Hartlepool’s, sometime in October of this year.
This is a disappointing although not wholly unexpected decision. The Government expressed a wish to close about a quarter of all magistrates’ across England. Ministers say that this is because of cost – these closures would save about half a billion pounds.
However, in the case of Hartlepool, it is questionable whether any money will be saved at all as a result of the closure. In a Parliamentary debate I initiated about this subject last year, I stated that Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court is fully compliant with disability and equality legislation. Other courts scheduled for closure are not. However, the proposed move from Hartlepool to Teesside Magistrates’ Court in Middlesbrough would require spending money to create an additional waiting room and a disabled access door.
I had also argued that 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 remaining. 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, and given the poor local government financial settlement that Hartlepool Borough Council, along with other councils in the North received, this is another financial pressure that the local council can ill afford.
It doesn’t save any money or generate any cash from selling off the building.
The closure means that people are further away from yet another public service, in this case justice.
It doesn’t seem fair that innocent victims and those giving evidence have to travel further.
I mentioned in Parliament last year that the consultation on the proposed move to Teesside states that there are “excellent road, rail and bus links”. Whoever wrote that clearly doesn’t have a clue about the provision of public transport in the area.
The consultation stressed that nobody should be inconvenienced from the closure by travelling more than an hour. However, the government also had to admit this is 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. The Government simply ignored this fact.
So what next? It is unlikely, if I’m being realistic, that the Government will change its mind about the closure.
It didn’t listen to the evidence or agree to its own criteria for closure during the consultation and so it is unlikely to listen now. This week I have written to the Justice Minister, asking if he will look again at these changes and ensure that access to justice for Hartlepool people is not moved further away.