Magistrates court system faces becoming “utterly overwhelmed”

Northallerton Magistrates' Court before its closure.

North Yorkshire’s magistrates court system faces becoming “utterly overwhelmed” following the Covid pandemic and a Government drive to increase the number of police officers by 20,000, it has been claimed.

North Yorkshire County Council’s corporate and partnerships scrutiny committee heard while long-standing inefficiencies had led to backlogs of criminal cases, delays over prosecutions had soared during the pandemic as courts had been forced to limit the number of people in the buildings.

However, Steve Walker, of the county’s Youth Justice Service, said the issue with court capacity was due to Northallerton, Skipton, Selby and Pickering magistrates courts closing over the last five years as the Courts Service had centralised its courts at Scarborough, Harrogate and York.

Mr Walker said Covid had made dealing with large volumes of cases at one building unsustainable and created “enormous difficulty”.

He said: “There was a point a few months ago when we had some hundreds of children waiting in limbo for an outcome from their behaviour and of course others coming into the pipeline.”

He said analysts had predicted the increase in police officers would lead to a 16 per cent increase in recorded crime.

Mr Walker said: “The difficulty is that it’s going to hit a court system, youth justice system, probation and the prisons which hasn’t been increased, so we face a very significant potential challenge in terms of dealing with those backlogs ahead.

“If police resources are uplifted and we don’t invest in additional court capacity we’re potentially going to see the whole magistrates court system utterly overwhelmed.

“And clearly that then presents a risk of losing public confidence because if people don’t feel the system is working for them then we risk other things happening.

“This has hit us at a time when the court system doesn’t have the capacity to be flexible like they used to.”

Calling for the authority to lobby MPs over the issue, Councillor Bryn Grrifiths replied: “I think we’re building up a delayed timebomb. I just hope we can get back on top of it as soon as possible. It really is a serious increasing problem. It is going to get worse.”

After the meeting, the committee’s chairman, Councillor Derek Bastiman, said the authority had objected to the closure of the courts and the issues the courts were now facing were foreseeable.

He said: “It was very short-sighted. You can’t centralise everything. It’s a problem that’s been created. There’s a good case for reopening some courts.

“I would like to see some permanently reopened, as soon as possible to clear the backlog, and get them back to full use and acting in a proper and responsible manner by the justice system.”

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