Government plans to sell Chichester Magistrates’ Court have been put on hold and the proposed timetable for the closure of the city’s crown and county (combined) courts thrown into doubt, following a dramatic backtrack at the highest level.
It had seemed the city’s crown and county courts were doomed with both due to follow the Magistrates’ court, which closed in August this year.
But following Resolution West Sussex starting action on a judicial review to challenge the Government, the Ministry of Justice has now backed down in an astonishing turnaround and agreed to consider Resolution’s proposal to turn the empty Magistrates’ building into a new combined (crown and county) court.
In a letter by the Government’s legal department on behalf of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTs), sent to Resolution on December 15, it confirmed it would ‘reconsider the 29 September 2016 decision’ to close Chichester Combined Court by June 2017.
Chichester family solicitor and mediator Edward Cooke of Resolution West Sussex has been driving the local campaign to save the city’s historic courts.
Mr Cooke said: “We are delighted that the Government has come to this decision.
“Whilst they have not yet confirmed whether they are willing to adopt our proposal solution for a new Chichester Combined Court, the very fact that they have confirmed that they are finally willing to consider our proposal is great news.”
The decision to close Chichester’s courts as part of 86 court building closures nationwide would leave the whole of West Sussex without a crown court facility, the nearest being Lewes or Portsmouth.
Chichester’s Magistrates’ and combined court had been listed for sale by the Government.
But the HMCTs letter also gave an explicit assurance that ‘the sale or transfer of Chichester Magistrates’ Court building will not occur prior to a decision by HMCTS property board, which will give Resolution’s proposal ‘due consideration.
Mr Cooke said: “The solution we are proposing would mean that Chichester would still keep a court, which is vital for the people of Chichester and Arun districts.
“The Government decision on September 29 would have left Chichester with no court facilities at all.
“Our proposal for a new combined court in the old magistrates’ building is, in our view, the best solution for all concerned.
“The new court would handle not only crown court criminal work, but also family and civic cases - in other work, county court work.
“Critically, the Government’s decision, save for providing for video link evidence to be given from Chichester Police Station, which HMCTs actually agreed would be problematic and unsuitable, would mean victims and witnesses of crime having to travel as far as Lewes for criminal trials.”
Mr Cooke added that in light of the Government announcement, the judicial review would be put on hold, and thanked those who have helped with the campaign, including county council leader Louise Goldsmith and Chichester MP Andrew Tyrie.
He added: “We look forward very much to working with the Ministry of Justice and very much hope that the right solution is now achieved.
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