Fresh hope in fight to keep Chichester’s court provision

Justin Lees and Edward Cooke from Resolution West Sussex
Justin Lees and Edward Cooke from Resolution West Sussex

The battle to keep court provision in Chichester took a new turn this week as a fresh proposal was made for a new justice centre for the city.

The proposed ‘Chichester Justice Centre’ would see a court facility located in the city to deal with non-criminal work – including civil and housing cases, cases involving children and family law matters.

However, the Observer understands it looks increasingly unlikely a crown court facility will be retained.

The magistrates’ court closed in September last year and the whole Southgate site is expected to become housing, though has not yet been transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency.

Chichester family lawyer Edward Cooke, from West Sussex Resolution, sent a fresh proposal for a Chichester Justice Centre elsewhere in the city to the Ministry of Justice on Thursday, June 22.

Mr Cooke has been fighting the closure of the city’s courts since it was announced in July last year that all would go and is hopeful a solution for maintaining ‘essential justice provision’ in Chichester can be achieved.

He said: “The government originally announced the court would close in March this year; however, the county court continues to list cases into the autumn and indeed beyond.

“So far as we are aware, Chichester is the only court of the 90 or so in the country slated for closure where the closure process has been suspended in this way.”

Mr Cooke said he had met with Gillian Keegan, the new MP for Chichester, and both she and Chichester District Council leader Tony Dignum had formally endorsed the creation of a Chichester Justice Centre.

The new centre would not deal with criminal cases, but would be equipped to provide video link evidence in such cases.

“A discrete location for such evidence to be given would, in our view, be far more appropriate than people giving evidence from a police station, which could be quite intimidating,” Mr Cooke added.

The proposal is the latest twist in a long-running battle by West Sussex Resolution to keep justice provision in Chichester.

The government originally announced early last year that the Chichester Combined Court (Crown Court and County Court) would close by the end of March 2017 - but that this would not happen until suitable alternative provision was established.

Despite this, the Ministry of Justice announced last September that no court provision would be retained in Chichester, save for a facility for witnesses in criminal trials to give evidence via video link at Chichester Police Station.

Following a pre-action letter threatening a Judicial Review, which was sent last December to the government by lawyers acting for West Sussex Resolution, the government backed down and agreed to consider their proposal that the old Chichester Magistrates Court building should be used as an ongoing hearing centre for Combined Court cases.

Mr Cooke said he had attended a meeting on March 7 with the group tasked by the Ministry of Justice to consider what alternative provision should be put in place.

Mr Cooke said: “The group was very complimentary about our original proposal; however, we were unable to convince all members of the group that it should be adopted.”

He said, however, he was still waiting to hear from the government as to what they would do next.

He said the priority now was to achieve a solution which means people can continue to access justice facilities locally into the future.

The MoJ has repeatedly insisted to the Observer that Chichester’s crown court remains open, despite the building being stripped and locked and no cases listed there since March of this year.

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