Bury St Edmunds will lose its magistrates, family and county courts, the Government announced today.
The Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, has decided to close 86 courts and tribunals to save £700 million over four years.
His verdict on Bury is that the magistrate’s and family court will close and the workload moved mainly to Ipswich Magistrates’ Court but also to Norwich Magistrates’ Court.
But he says it will not close until ‘suitable alternative provision is established’ which will include some family court work moving to the county court building, Triton House in St Andrew’s Street North. They will also provide video conferencing for ‘vulnerable people and witnesses in criminal cases who live near Bury’.
It also says the ministry will explore other options suggested by local stakeholders. However, the Ministry of Justice’s report on the closure says Bury’s courts will be in the second batch of those to close with a planned date for July to September this year.
The crown court will close because there has been no work there ‘for some time’.
The MoJ report says 132 responses were received on the Bury courts of which one was supportive, nine were ‘neutral’ and the rest objected, with the main issues raised being transport links and access to justice, use of buildings and efficiency and alternative provisions.
The MoJ’s report admits they made errors over the magistrates’ and family courts use saying that in the 2014-15 financial year they were used to 59 per cent capacity and not 44 per cent as the consultation document claimed.
It also admits its claim there was a direct train service between Bury and Norwich was wrong.
It says the main concerns of respondents were travel and access to justice with ‘a number of comments’ relating to the rural nature of the area and its limited road and rail links.
A solicitor told the ministry: “The consultation seems almost blasé about the distances and travel times involved in getting to the other court centres and seem ignorant of the fact that Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are rural areas with poor public transport.”
One of the 57 members of the public who responded, wrote: “To cite train journeys (and bus when available) is assuming that people are starting out from the court they would have used which is not the case as people will travel from home. This could be from Haverhill, for example.”
Cambridge and District Law Society, responding on behalf of 768 members, opposed the closure on the grounds of increased costs and travel time of court users and legal service providers.
The only MP to respond, Bury’s Jo Churchill, told them: “The proposed reduction to a single court will leave many of my constituents isolated, particularly those in the west of Suffolk. There are concerns in several areas such as transport, connectivity, victim safety and representation.
“Given the size and rural nature of my constituency, and Suffolk generally, the financial burden and inconvenience placed on court users will be significant.”
After the decision was announced, she said: “Today’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice carries good and bad news for Bury St Edmunds. As we suspected, our Grade II listed Magistrates’ Court located in the heart of Bury St Edmunds, will be closed.
“It is regrettable that we will lose this wonderful building for justice purposes, which has been the staple for local justice in our town.”
But she said the magistrates’ court, when the family court was excluded, was running at only 39 per cent of capacity and cost almost £100,000 a year to maintain so she thought it was better that the building closed.
She added: “However, in a bid to ensure Bury St Edmunds can access all essential local justice, I have been assured by the Minister that our Magistrates Court will close only ‘once suitable alternative local provision has been established’.
“I am delighted by this announcements and feel that the desperate needs of our rural town have been listened and responded to appropriately.
“I will be working closely with the Ministry of Justice to ensure this settlement does delivers the provisions our town needs for improved, effective and ultimately local justice and continue to make my case for the relocation of services to the Public Service Village in Bury St Edmunds.”
Susan Hughes, chairwoman of the Suffolk Bench of magistrates, said: “The news that there will within a short time be only one magistrates’ court in Suffolk is deeply disappointing.
“Many of those involved directly or indirectly in the judicial system locally, campaigned hard to persuade the Ministry of Justice that our large and mostly rural county, with its poor public transport links, should not be disadvantaged in terms of access to justice.
“Clearly our representations have not succeeded, but as dedicated volunteers, Suffolk magistrates will strive to deliver justice fairly and effectively. We will work with Her Majesty’s Court Service, given that they recognise that special facilities may be needed for vulnerable victims and witnesses a long distance from Ipswich.
”We also welcome that options suggested by local stakeholders – short of retaining three courts – will also be explored in West Suffolk.”
Cllr John Griffiths, leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, said: “I am extremely disappointed at this decision and the consequent loss of access to local justice for some of our residents in West Suffolk and beyond.
“That said, the announcement also says that the Ministry of Justice wants to further explore options suggested by us and other local stakeholders.
“We put forward a good alternative for the court as part of our vision for the redevelopment of Western Way and we will be pursuing this with the Ministry of Justice on behalf of our residents.”
James Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council said: “Our residents will now face a far longer and more complicated journey via public transport to attend hearings in Ipswich or Norwich.
“There is hope in that the Ministry for Justice wants to further explore options suggested by local stakeholders. One of these options is for court facilities to be included as part of the redevelopment of Western Way in Bury St Edmunds, which is currently out to consultation, and I will back John Griffiths in pushing for this on behalf of all of our residents.”
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘We are disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with the closure of so many courts.
“The majority of these closures will make it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.
“We need to look through the detail of the government’s revised plans for closing Bury St. Edmunds Magistrates Court, Family Court and Crown Court to ensure that access to justice problems are mitigated”
The Law Society had objected to the closure of Bury and Lowestoft courts because it said it would leave an area of 1,466 square miles served by only one court.
Its representation said: “For magistrates’ cases, approximately 89 per cent of users would have to travel for over one hour to reach court in Ipswich, and 88 per cent of users in family cases would have similar journey lengths.”
To read a PDF of the full MoJ report for closures in the South East region, which includes East Anglia, click here (you do not need a Dropbox account to read it).