In the wake of strong criticism, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has moved to defend its decision to close the law courts in Chichester and the alternative facilities which will be provided.
The Chichester Combined Court building will close next June and is set to be replaced with video links at Chichester Police Station for victims and witnesses in criminal cases and the use the tribunal buildings in Havant for civil and family hearings.
Campaigners fighting the closure have branded the MOJ’s alternative plans ‘inadequate’ and ‘a scandal’.
They are now stepping up their campaign, which could include an application to the High Court for a judicial review.
Leading campaigner Edward Cooke, a family solicitor and vice chairman of the West Sussex branch of Resolution, a nationwide organisation of family law professionals, said: “This is completely inadequate. On the criminal side it will leave West Sussex without a crown court, despite it being the 11th largest county in the country. This is a scandal. The provision of occasional hearing facilities in Havant for civil and family cases is also wholly unsatisfactory. Havant is not an easy location for many people in the district to reach.”
But a spokesman for HM Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We have a world-leading legal system and are investing over £700m to reform and digitise our courts to deliver swifter justice.
“Closing underused and dilapidated court buildings will allow us to reinvest in the justice system and make the best use of technology. This will improve access to justice and improve the experience for all court users, in particular vulnerable victims and witnesses.”
The MOJ said maintaining underused court buildings cost the taxpayer £500 million a year, but some courts sat for less than half the time available and closing poor quality building would raise £40m to reinvest in the justice system, saving £27m a year.
“Technology will be at the forefront of our reforms and in the digital age online solutions and telephone and video hearings will make access to justice easier and reduce dependence on the court estate,” said the spokesman.
“The decision to close Chichester Combined Court was not taken lightly and work will be distributed primarily to Worthing County Court and Family Court. Cases may also be listed in other county and family courts in Sussex dependant on the location of court users.”
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