Justice in the dock: questions still remain after courthouse closures

Lowestoft solicitor Rob Barley tried to keep Lowestoft Magistrates' Court open.

Lowestoft solicitor Rob Barley tried to keep Lowestoft Magistrates' Court open. - Credit: Nick Butcher

As magistrates at one of the region's last remaining courthouses banged their gavels for the last time, few could hide their sadness at the loss of one of the area's most important community assets.

Lowestoft Magistrates' Court. Picture: James Bass

Lowestoft Magistrates' Court. Picture: James Bass - Credit: James Bass

For years Lowestoft Magistrates' Court had been a staple of the community and a place where residents in the coastal town could see justice being done.

So when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proposed closing the building in Old Nelson Street as part of a round of cutbacks last year, solicitors felt they had a strong case for keeping it open.

But despite being used to assembling a wealth of evidence that would hold up in any courtroom, the MOJ said a declining workload and a growing reliance on digital technology for hearings meant it was no longer needed as part of the court estate.

It continues a growing trend of closures across East Anglia, with a network of courthouses now reduced to just three in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire and two in Suffolk.

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Rob Barley, a partner at Lowestoft-based Norton Peskett Solicitors, said: 'Everyone had worked very hard in that building to provide a service to the local community.

'We'd enjoyed it - there were good times and bad, but everyone who had worked there was sad to see it go.'

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More importantly though, he said: 'It's a tragedy for access to justice in the local community.'

Cases that used to heard in Lowestoft will now be split, with some being heard in nearby Great Yarmouth but others from the Beccles and Southwold areas going to Ipswich.

That, Mr Barley said, is 'completely illogical', as Yarmouth is far nearer to Beccles and Southwold - and defendants and are faced with over an hour of travel to attend. In many cases, it is believed witnesses will simply not attend court and that cases may be decided without the full evidence in front of the court.

Mr Barley also believes that complexes like Ipswich will 'struggle to keep up with the influx of work', but that the court staff will do everything they can to make it work.

'The people who work there will make sure it works - however it doesn't address the underlying issue,' he said.

His fear is that if justice is not easily accessible, then people will complain that the system is not fair - which could shake confidence in the criminal justice system.

However, the MoJ argued during the public consultation that digital technology means 'fewer people will need to be in court'.

Mr Barley and colleagues visited ministers in London to press their case, they feared it would affect the quality of justice as face-to-face evidence is generally considered more reliable than testimonies given through a screen.

Yet their efforts have been in vain - and although attempts have been made to hold some court hearings at other public buildings, nothing has yet been arranged.

What do you think about the decision to close magistrates' courts? Email edpletters@archant.co.uk

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