The Government’s top civil servants identified ‘significant concerns’ about closing Chichester’s Crown Court before deciding to shut it anyway.
The HMCT Property Board questioned the ability of neighbouring courts to cope with the extra crown court workload because of the ‘high levels of outstanding cases in the South East’.
And it had planned to retain Chichester’s crown court - the only one in West Sussex - before an apparent U-turn just weeks before announcing the closure of 86 English courts in February 2016, minutes of its meetings reveal.
It comes as the city’s crown court stopped listing cases at the end of last week despite HMCT insisting the facility remains open. Story here
Minutes of three meetings held by the HMCT Property Board - which is made up of senior civil servants and judges - between November 23 and December 14, 2015, were obtained by a Freedom of Information request by Resolution West Sussex.
At a meeting on November 27, 2015, the HMCTS Property Board noted the region’s crime performance was ‘under performing’ and concluded that ‘the removal of another crown court may adversely impact that’.
It said: “There are significant concerns around the ability of the receiving sites to cope with the crown court workload in light of the high levels of outstanding cases in the South East region and the nature of cases (i.e. sex offences which tend to be longer trials).”
The board had planned to retain the Chichester Crown Court but lose the city’s magistrates’ and county court, minutes of a meeting on November 27 showed, identifying ‘access to justice issues with poor travel links from more rural areas, as well as the question of whether Lewes and Portsmouth could accommodate the additional workload from Chichester’.
A third meeting on December 14 however stated: “The crown court will only be closed once the region is confident that the work can be absorbed in other crown courts without creating additional delays.”
Edward Cooke of Resolution West Sussex said it was ‘deeply disturbing’ that, whilst in its final meeting prior to announcing the closures in February 2016, the HMCTS Property Board changed its mind and recommended the closure of the crown court, when at no point in the documents disclosed have HMCTS explained their change of decision.
Mr Cooke said: “It is very hard to understand the last-minute change of decision on the part of HMCTS, given the available evidence.
“A House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on May 2016 pointed to the fact that Sussex, West and East Sussex combined, already has the longest delays in the country in crown court cases.
“How this situation will be improved by closing Chichester’s Crown Court and therefore reducing capacity further seems to be entirely illogical.”
Mr Cooke said that he had been informed that delays at Lewes Crown Court were already chronic, and had got worse since Chichester Crown Court stopped being allocated new cases last year.
The minutes of the meetings also show the Property Board values Chichester’s Combined Court at £570,000, with an ‘operational saving’ of £200,000 by its closure.
Mr Cooke added: “I simply cannot understand how HMCTS can proceed to close down the crown court, if this is indeed the case, when it has given us assurances that it will not do so.
“We are still awaiting a decision from HMCTS as to what it proposes as the way forward in terms of alternative provision.”
Resolution is proposing that Chichester’s former magistrates’ court, which closed last September, become a new crown and county combined court.
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