A plan to close the magistrates court at Northallerton has drawn a critical response from North Yorkshire county councillors.
They say they are concerned that the Ministry of Justice seems to be going back on a pledge to maintain the magistrates court, made when those in Stokesley and Richmond were closed, and believe people living in the Dales and North York Moors would be disadvantaged by the time and distance involved in reaching other courts.
In January the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts & Tribunals Service published a consultation document proposing the closure of Northallerton magistrates’ court to consolidate and improve the efficiency of courts in the area. The consultation seeks the views of everyone with an interest in the work at this court and ends on 29 March.
The proposal is to close the court and transfer the workload to courts in York, Harrogate, Skipton and Middlesbrough. The consultation document sets out travel times for Richmond, Ripon, Bedale, Sowerby, Leyburn, Hawes and Northallerton to these alternative courts and also states that during the 2016-17 financial year, the operating costs of the Northallerton court were approximately £140,000.
The proposed closure is part of the larger £1 billion investment in the process of reforming court and tribunal services throughout the country and proceeds from the sale of the building would go to this investment.
Members of the council’s corporate and partnerships overview and scrutiny committee have backed a strongly-worded response to the ministry. They were told that although the operating costs at Northallerton were about £140,000 a year, a closure would increase travel claims and the number of times defendants, witnesses and claimants did not show up.
A move to neighbouring courts would also increase inefficiencies for police and trading standards, who both have headquarters in Northallerton.
Council leader Councillor Carl Les said:
Large areas of North Yorkshire are in the top five per cent most deprived for access to services in the country. For some residents journeys by public transport to a neighbouring magistrates’ court can take over an hour. Also depending upon the time of day that the case is heard, it is not always possible for them to travel back home by public transport in the same day.
The closure of Northallerton magistrates’ court would extend travelling times beyond the ‘reasonable distance’ criteria for people living in rural areas of the district, particularly for those who have to rely on public transport. In our previous response to court closure we stated that reasonable distance is defined by the majority of the public to be within a 60-minute commute of their nearest court by public transport. It is already the case that for users of public transport living in some areas of the district, travelling times to Northallerton exceed the 60-minute commute.
The consultation document demonstrates a lack of understanding of North Yorkshire and its population. I am also very supportive of the vigorous opposition campaign mounted by Richmond MP Rishi Sunak and the support shown by Hambleton District Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan.