More cuts spark Lancaster court closure fear

A magistrate has warned that the decision to move custody cases from Lancaster to Preston is another nail in the coffin for local justice.

Wednesday, 15th February 2017, 3:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:37 am
COURT Lancaster Magistrates Court. 23080411

From May 1, custody cases will no longer be heard at Lancaster Magistrates’ Court.

This means that people already in custody will not have their cases heard at Lancaster, and will instead be sent to Preston for their hearing.

Magistrate and Labour city councillor Colin Hartley said the move could mean that Lancaster would deal with only very low level offences.

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He also said that witnesses and family members of those who stand accused will now have to travel to Preston, increasing the likelihood of witnesses failing to appear to give evidence because they have to travel further.

Over the past few years, Lancaster has lost its fines payment office, and motoring offences are now heard in Chorley.

Coun Hartley said that Lancaster is turning into a “second tier courthouse”. He said: “Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) claim that moving custody cases to Preston will improve the experience for all court users. I’m unable to see how this might be true.

“It certainly isn’t going to improve matters for the families of those accused or the witnesses who will have to travel to Preston. Witnesses to some crimes are already reluctant to come to court to give evidence. I fear that more will fail to appear when they have to travel. I can’t see how this will enhance justice.

“I believe this is another nail in the coffin of local justice. Will the next announcement be the closure of the Magistrates’ Court in Lancaster?”

An HMCTS spokesperson said: “We have a world-leading legal system and are investing over £1billion to reform and digitise our courts to deliver swifter justice.

“Following a public consultation, we are moving the small number of custody cases heard at Lancaster to Preston Magistrates’ Court where they have a dedicated custody court available. This change will take place from 1 May. Ensuring we make the best use of our resources and court buildings will improve access to justice and improve the experience for all court users.”

Lancaster solicitor John Halewood-Dood said he was told earlier this year that the cells at Lancaster were being refurbished, and would return to normal by February 20.

He said that 90 per cent of his company’s work is in Lancaster. “My immediate thoughts are with those who will lose their jobs, many of whom have worked at the court for years. It angers and upsets me that they are being treated so shabbily,” he said.

I believe that the decision to transfer all our custody cases, and cases with a risk of a custodial sentence, to Preston has n hidden agenda. The less work taking place at Lancaster the weaker any argument in favour of the court remaining open. There has been a gradual transfer of work away from this court, and I feel that this is not a coincidence.”

lSee John Halewood Dodd’s column – page 41.