A Government minister has stepped in to quash fears that Lancaster Magistrates Court will close.
Members of the city’s legal community voiced concerns the court is earmarked for closure within the next 12 months. But Shailesh Vara, parliamentary under-secretary for the courts and legal aid, told MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood Eric Ollerenshaw that the court would remain open.
One city solicitor said that rumours had abounded for years about the court’s demise, and that he wasn’t surprised to learn from a “reliable source” that it was earmarked for closure.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service failed to be drawn on any closure plans, instead saying it continued to keep its estate under review.
Meanwhile, magistrates in Lancashire said that the closure of the court would pose a direct challenge to local justice.
John Halewood-Dodd, who runs JHD Solicitors in the city and has 20 staff, said that both Kendal and Barrow-in-Furness Magistrates Court were also under review.
He said: “Lancaster Magistrates Court has seen a gradual reduction in the number of sittings with work being farmed out to other courts.
“Motoring matters are dealt with in the south of the county, we now have fewer trial courts allocated, and those unfortunate enough to be detained in custody on a Saturday or Bank Holiday find themselves appearing before Magistrates in Preston rather than their local court.
“This is why it came as no real surprise to me to be informed that Lancaster Magistrates Court is to close within the next 12 months.
“This information came from a reliable source at the court who said that they had been told this directly by senior management.
“This was then corroborated by a senior Crown Prosecutor who confirmed that they too were informed of this.”
Last July there were changes to the operational structure of Lancaster Magistrates Court, which saw its administration move to Blackpool.
Of the nine staff based at the court: seven were relocated to courts in Preston; one to Lancaster County Court; and one remains at the Magistrates’ Court.
An HM Courts & Tribunals Service spokesman said: “HM Courts & Tribunals Service continues to keep the use of its estate under review to ensure it meets operational requirements.
“Any new proposals on the future of courts beyond those already announced would be subject to consultation.”
Mike Hallett JP, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association Lancashire County Branch, commented: “We have not heard anything on this yet, so it’s news to us and we await details. However, we can say that court closures are always of concern to our members because we believe the interests of local justice are best served as locally as possible, and court closures pose a direct challenge to this. Once proposals are known, we will consult with our branch members and reflect their views robustly when we have them.”