Council leaders and North Devon MP join the fight to save court services in Barnstaple.
THE leader of North Devon Council has written to HM Court’s and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to oppose proposed cuts at North Devon Magistrate’s Court.
The move comes after magistrates and solicitors received a letter from HMCTS stating the court had been under-sitting and would be merging with Exeter.
The original letter to court users explained that several services, including Barnstaple custody remand cases, would be transferred to Exeter, leaving Barnstaple to close on a Monday and every other Wednesday.
In his letter to HMCTS South West’s director Sandra Aston, Cllr Brian Greenslade claimed the cuts may prompt cause for a judicial review.
He said: “We are all also at a loss to understand why if you are consulting on changes to the Barnstaple Court arrangements, the court is now refusing to list cases later in October.
“This suggests decisions are already taken and would therefore totally invalidate your consultation.
“Lawyers suggest to me that this may be cause for Judicial Review.”
Cllr Greenslade met with North Devon MP Nick Harvey to discuss the cuts on Thursday.
Mr Harvey said he would be taking the matter up with the Minister for Justice and claimed it was ‘removing local justice’.
Concerns were also raised among local solicitors that travelling to Exeter would cause numerous problems for those attending trials, especially in the morning.
Those using public transport to attend 9am registration for a 10am trial could find themselves travelling more than three hours each way.
A defendant living in Ilfracombe would have to get a 6am bus to make the 7am train, whereas defendants further afield in towns such as Lynton or Holsworthy would have to fork out money for taxis.
One court user on Friday stated she couldn’t pay the fine ordered by magistrates upfront because she’d had to pay £25 to get to the Barnstaple court on time from Ilfracombe in a taxi.
This prompted concerns among lawyers that the majority of defendants may not even turn up for hearings.
Mike Mansell, chief executive of the council, said: “We have only got a two-carriage train from here to Exeter.
“In cases where there’s a degree of animosity we could have solicitors, the accused and defendants all sitting in one carriage together; it’s going to be quite unpleasant for a lot of people.”
Cllr Barry Parsons, leader of Torridge District Council who sat as a magistrate in Barnstaple for six years, has also spoken up against the proposals.
He said: “I am a great believer that local justice is far more effective than justice from a distance.
“As a former magistrate I’ve found great merit in the benefit of having local knowledge and my fear is that to a significant extent that would be lost.
“My past experiences have shown that it’s not infrequent that individuals miss appointments in court.
“Any move to site court sittings away from a local base would only compound the problem.”
Solicitors opposing the merges are urging people to sign an e-petition to the Minister of Justice titled ‘local people – local justice – save our court.’
The petition can be found at the link in the top right of the page.