Fears for the future as courts across East Anglia prepare to close

March 31 will mark an end of an era for criminal justice as the last of the region's smaller magistrates courts – Swaffham, Cromer, Thetford and Wisbech – close their doors for good. They are among 140 courts which will close nationwide.

The Ministry of Justice argues that all have been in decline for years, only sitting two or three days each week. The operating costs of these four courts amount to more than �350,000 annually and most are in need of expensive renovation.

While spending cuts may have acted as a catalyst for closure, the decision marked the end of a slow, foreseeable death rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Protests at the latest round of closures were, at best, muted – but genuine concerns for the future do exist.

Magistrates' courts were once a common feature of towns across the region. Over the years courts in Fakenham, Diss, North Walsham, Wymondham, Hunstanton, and Downham Market were among those to close.

Even some villages have, in living memory, had their own courts: until 1971 a 16th century building in Walsingham, now the Shirehall museum, served as a magistrates court. Nowadays the courtroom is used for hands-on demonstrations of the law in action – an echo of a time when justice was dispensed on a truly local level.

From April, all court hearings in Norfolk will take place in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. The workload of the Wisbech courthouse will be transferred to King's Lynn, Peterborough and Huntingdon. In Suffolk, Lowestoft Magistrates' Court will remain although the county court in the town will close.

There are 397 magistrates in Norfolk. Some are set to retire; others will transfer to their nearest remaining court. But the close connection between JPs and their communities will be diluted.

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Communities may feel increasingly disconnected from the justice system. In many cases witnesses, victims and defendants will be forced to rely on public transport to make long and costly journeys for hearings.

The closures will also mean key buildings, often in central locations, will fall vacant at a time when many fear for the vibrancy of town centres.

North Norfolk district councillor Sue Arnold spent 25 years sitting as a magistrate in Cromer before stepping down three years ago.

She said: 'This is a sign of the times but it is very sad. I can remember when we had courts in Holt, Wells and even Walsingham.

'Of course magistrates in Norwich and their expert advisors will still be able to dispense justice. But there is no doubt you will lose local knowledge and the sense that the community is playing an active role.

'Witnesses, victims and defendants are often vulnerable people with limited means. It may not be too bad for somebody to travel from Cromer to Norwich, but if you live in a village it becomes much harder.

'I know people may not have much sympathy for defendants but you have to remember everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

'I'm no soft touch but after so many years I developed an empathy for defendants and can see their perspective.'

Her concerns are shared by Margaret Angood, chairman of the Fenland Bench, who said: 'The closure will mean the Cambridgeshire Fens will no longer have a courthouse within this socially and geographically distinct area.

'Local justice will take on a new meaning for Fenland residents.

'Some magistrates are moving with the work from the area where they live, some are choosing to resign.'

When the closures were announced, South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss expressed disappointment at the closure of Thetford Magistrates' Court, saying that she feared over-centralisation.

'One of the things I wanted to push forward to the justice committee was that we don't have too much centralisation of things like magistrates' courts and prisons because the local community will become less engaged in the system and that creates mistrust,' she said.

Beyond concerns over the future of justice, there are also fears that the courthouses will lie empty – the latest blight on town centres.

Mrs Arnold said: 'In Cromer the old police station already looks neglected and there are a number of boarded-up shops. It is not good for the community, particularly in a town with a holiday trade.

'This decision means mothballing a building with a very distinct atmosphere and it will be very sad to see it fall vacant.

'It is in a prime position on Holt Road as you come into town so it would be good to see it put to some positive use, possibly as a community centre or special needs school.'

Cromer town councillor Hilary Thompson said: 'I would like to think the building could be used for something for the community, something for the youth of the town, maybe a drop-in centre or a community centre.'

North East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay is among those calling for the local council to look pro-actively at the best use for the historic Wisbech courthouse.

He said: 'Too often prime sites like these are simply turned into flats and an opportunity to improve the wider local area is missed.

'I would not like to see it closed and boarded up or indeed turned into something that would not benefit the town. The court's location is such that it could be a potential winner for the area. I would support any project that has the capacity to promote and improve the town's standing as the capital of the Fens and which may provide greater encouragement for local people and tourists to visit, stay and sample its historic hospitality.'

However, moves to take over courts elsewhere seem unlikely given financial constraints.

In Thetford there were rumours councillors were toying with the idea of taking over the courthouse for the benefit of the community.

But this has not come to fruition and the building will be sold to the highest bidder on the open market.

In Swaffham where, it is fair to say, the courthouse has the least architectural merit, such a move also seems unlikely.

Mayor Ian Sherwood said the possibility of taking over the Westacre Road building had not been discussed by the town council.

He said: 'In the current financial climate, it's extremely unlikely that most parish and town councils could afford to take over such buildings and responsibilities.'

A spokesman for Her Majesty's Court Service said 'implementation plans' are being developed through discussions with trade unions and staff.

'We will work closely with staff and the judiciary to decant work into receiving courts effectively, without disruption to services.'

The courthouses will soon become a relic and their workload will be absorbed by larger, busier courts. For those who worked in and visited courts, memories will remain.

Mrs Arnold said: 'Hundreds of cases came before me during my time on the bench.

'The first person you send to prison always sticks out in the memory.

'For me it was a person who had been extracting electricity and ended up setting fire to the house and endangering lives. Some of family work also stands out as there were so many distressing cases. I for one will miss Cromer's courthouse.'