The money-saving move to close a magistrates court would end up costing other areas of the public purse, councillors have heard.
North Yorkshire County councillors said they were furious that the Ministry of Justice appeared to be reneging on pledges to maintain Northallerton Magistrates’ Court, which they claimed were made when magistrates courts in Richmond and Stokesley were closed.
While some councillors remain optimistic that the last remaining court in Hambleton and Richmondshire can be saved, others have suggested Whitehall officials may have already decided the court’s fate.
In a draft response to a consultation on the proposal, councillors said it was understood some administrative staff had been moved from Northallerton to York, “which, if correct, suggests pre-determination which would be a breach of the Gunning Principles regarding consultation endorsed by the Supreme Court”.
They also levelled a claim that the Ministry of Justice had made unannounced changes to the consultation document after it was published, and of showing a “lack of understanding of North Yorkshire and its population”.
Members of the Corporate and Partnerships Overview and Scrutiny Committee have backed sending a withering response to the ministry over the plan to close the 1937 building on Racecourse Lane, which they said would restrict access to justice.
The meeting heard while the operating costs of the Northallerton court was about £140,000 a year, the closure would be likely to increase travel claims and the number of ‘no shows’ from defendants, witnesses and claimants.
The move to transfer the court’s workload to centres in York, Harrogate, Skipton and Middlesbrough would also increase inefficiencies and operating costs for Trading Standards and Police, which both have headquarters in Northallerton, councillors were told.
A draft of the council’s response to the Ministry of Justice said: “The proposals appear designed to deliver on the principle of reducing costs for the HM Courts & Tribunals Service at the expense of ensuring access to justice.
“The proposal moves away from the concept that local justice is best served by magistrates who are local people with an understanding of local circumstances.
“Teesside [Magistrates Court] is located in Middlesbrough, an urban centre which has no comprehension of the principles, values and day-to-day issues of life in the deeply rural areas of Richmondshire.
“Even within North Yorkshire, the areas are very different and have different perspectives on life and community issues.
“The closure and re-allocation proposals will have the biggest impact on people in rural areas without access to cars, in particular people living in Richmondshire.”
Councillors also called on North Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan to press the Ministry of Justice to retain the Northallerton court.
Mrs Mulligan was unavailable for comment.
The Ministry of Justice are yet to respond the councillors’ claims.
Recently, in relation to its proposals to close courts, a ministry spokesperson said: “This government is investing over £1bn to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer.
“Since April 2016 we have raised £115m from the sale of underused court buildings – over £34m more than forecast, and every penny of this will be reinvested as part of our modernisation plans. As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings.”