After a three year battle, Chichester campaigners hail victory as the Government finally confirms court provision will be retained in the city.
Campaigners to keep court provision in Chichester are celebrating the announcement by the government that court provision will be retained in Chichester, sited in Chichester District Council’s headquarters at East Pallant House, upon the closure of the existing court building.
Edward Cooke, a Chichester family lawyer and mediator and spokesperson for Resolution, the nationwide organisation of family law professionals, has led the campaign to retain justice facilities
He said Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has now confirmed that alternative provision will be established at Chichester District Council’s building at East Pallant House.
Mr Cooke added: “I understand the existing court building is likely to remain open for several months whilst arrangements are piloted at East Pallant House.
“Only once this has happened and the new facility at East Pallant House is up and running will the existing court building close.”
HMCTS has confirmed court provision will be retained in Chichester in civil and family law cases.
In civil cases this will include possession hearings, some personal injury and small claims cases.
In family law, cases to be heard will include cases involving child arrangements on separation and divorce, financial issues and some injunction cases.
The provision to be made available at East Pallant House will offer a maximum capacity of up to 100 judicial sitting days.
Mr Cooke said: “The court will sit at East Pallant House each Friday – the Council Chamber, where hearings will take place, can be subdivided into two.”
Mr Cooke said this means it will be possible for two judges to sit simultaneously, giving a capacity of up to 100 judicial sittings days each year.
Mr Cooke said: “We warmly welcome this news.
“We have fought long and hard to keep justice provision in Chichester.
“Many people thought it was not a battle we could win, but we are thrilled the government has accepted our arguments and essential court provision will be retained in Chichester for civil and family law cases.
“We have always believed court provision should be retained in Chichester and we are delighted HMCTS have now finally recognised this and made this decision.”
The existing Chichester court building provided capacity of 240 sitting days last year, so the East Pallant House provision will result in a significant reduction in the overall capacity available for hearings.
However, after a three year battle, the East Pallant House option provides an outcome which preserves significant capacity for court cases to continue to be dealt with in Chichester.
Mr Cooke also said that, hitherto, no ongoing court provision had been offered, so this outcome represents a huge victory for the campaign to keep court provision in the city.
Critically, the new arrangements will safeguard court facilities where significant access to justice issues arise, including people facing significant hardships or with disabilities.
Mr Cooke said: “I am delighted that HMCTS have finally recognised the arguments we have made forcefully from the very start about the importance of access to justice being preserved to the most vulnerable people in society.
“It is critical, for example in housing cases where people are facing eviction that people are close to a court facility.
“Similarly, in family cases where there are vulnerable people facing real hardship upon separation, people should not be expected to travel long distances to court, particularly where their only means of travel is public transport.
Mr Cooke said, in addition to the continuing court provision at East Pallant House, provision will continue in criminal cases for general prosecution and defence witnesses to give evidence via video link from Chichester Police station.
Mr Cooke said the provision being established in Chichester was now widely recognised as a model which could be adopted elsewhere.
He said: “Chichester was recently cited at length in a Public Accounts Committee meeting at the House of Commons as an example of how court provision can be retained in a flexible way so as to ensure continuing access to justice for local people.”
He said, with the Ministry of Justice continuing to face substantial cuts to its budgets, many more court closures will take place around the country in the coming years.
He said: “I hope the example of Chichester will inspire other towns and cities faced with losing essential local justice facilities not to give up.
“We were told many times in the process by many people that we had no hope of keeping any justice facilities in Chichester.
“We even had to send a pre-action letter threatening a judicial review of the Ministry of Justice to get the government to think again.
“Ultimately, however, we have been successful through a combination of perseverance, excellent support and refusing to give up.”
Mr Cooke wished to pay tribute to all those who have supported the campaign locally in the past three years, including the team at Pallant Chambers, Chichester, members of the City Council and Chichester BID, among many others.
He said: “The Chichester Observer’s interest in local campaigns such as this has also been vital to keeping our battle to keep court provision in Chichester in the public eye.”
In particular, Mr Cooke cited organisations such as Stonepillow, which supports homeless and vulnerable people in the district, and the Chichester and District Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), both of which provided powerful evidence of the impact on vulnerable people of the wholesale loss of court provision originally proposed back in 2015.
Mr Cooke said the intervention of previous Chichester’s MP Andrew Tyrie in 2016 had also been very welcome, as at that stage he had opened up access to pro bono support from a top barrister.
Mr Cooke also paid tribute to top international law firm Hogan Lovells, which he said provided ‘hundreds of hours of invaluable pro bono legal support’.
“Taking on the government and Whitehall juggernaut is a daunting prospect at the best of times and, without the support of such an expert and dedicated pro bono legal team, I am not sure we would have won through.”
Welcoming the news Chichester MP Gillian Keegan said: “I am delighted that after years of discussion and hard work by local solicitors, campaigners and officials, Chichester will keep some court provision once the old court buildings are closed.
“This is so important for residents as it will mean people won’t have to travel long distances to Brighton or Winchester for what are often very short hearings. I am grateful to both the Government and Chichester District Council for listening and working with the community to achieve this positive result for the people of Chichester.”
A HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: “We have worked closely with local leaders, listened to their concerns and are pleased that we have been able to find an alternative venue for court hearings in Chichester as a result.
“The changes in Chichester are a part of our wider court reforms which will make services easier to use and better value for taxpayers.”
A spokesman for Chichester District Council added: “We have been working closely with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) for several months to facilitate a local continuation of the court service in our city. Although the finer details of the arrangements have not yet been finalised, we are hopeful that a solution will be deliverable that will satisfy all concerned.”
Charles Brasted, partner at Hogan Lovells who led on the case, said: “Ensuring continued access to justice for the most vulnerable members of society is vital. We are proud to have supported West Sussex Resolution and are thrilled with the outcome of the case, and the important precedent that it sets. Court closures must not be allowed to go through without rigorous scrutiny and adequate alternative provision in place.”
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