Why Suffolk police and crime commissioner opposes Lowestoft Magistrates’ Court proposed closure

Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore

Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore - Credit: Archant

In his latest column for The Journal, Suffolk police and crime commissioner TIM PASSMORE writes about the potential closure of Lowestoft Magistrates'Court.

It was with great dismay I learned of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation on their plans to close the magistrates' courts in Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds.

I am utterly appalled by these crazy proposals. However, we are told this is a consultation process. Hopefully, our powers of persuasion will be used to good effect but we do need as many people as possible to support the Archant campaign called 'Justice for Suffolk'.

I am well aware the country must save money and reduce the debt mountain as quickly as possible because we cannot live beyond our means and Suffolk will make its contribution as long as any proposals are balanced and reasonable.

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But I do wonder if the bureaucrats from the MoJ ivory towers studied the geography of Suffolk at any time in their life – a huge county of 1,700 square miles, 423 villages plus our two big towns of Lowestoft and Ipswich, and a population of just under 750,000 people.

Have any of them attempted to travel from Lowestoft or Haverhill to Ipswich by public transport? I think not and I am especially concerned that access to justice does not become the preserve of the mobile or well off.

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Our criminal justice system is one of the finest in the world and must continue to be accessible to all, regardless of wealth, colour or creed and I believe these proposals for court closures could jeopardise this.

If the plans proceed, Suffolk will be one of only six counties with a single court – an unacceptable and absurd situation for such a large rural county.

There are alternatives, I am not precious about keeping the individual buildings but it does seem quite extraordinary that Lowestoft Court is earmarked for closure when Great Yarmouth is not. Lowestoft Court, I am told by many people, is much the better facility and more modern, yet no details are provided about the running costs of Yarmouth in comparison to Lowestoft.

Recently I spoke with Councillor Colin Law, leader of Waveney District Council, who suggested that in order to save money the hearings could be held in the new Riverside Complex. Has this been considered?

It is important that justice is seen to be done for the victims in particular – be it individuals or businesses. We know from the crime survey of England and Wales that only half of all crime is reported and that must improve.

Has any consideration been included on future demand? I see no evidence of this in the consultation document and as police and crime commissioner I know first-hand how the pattern of crime is changing, particularly with hidden harm, which includes cyber crime, child sexual exploitation, illegal immigration often run by organised crime groups and domestic abuse. Many of the victims are extremely vulnerable and will find it challenging to attend hearings, never mind facing the prospect of spending most of the day travelling to and from Ipswich.

Surely any sensible business plan examines all the options and costs and includes projections on future demand, but then one contemplates if the bureaucrats have ever run a business of their own – I always say it's very easy to spend other people's money!

Some magistrates, legal professionals and solicitors I have spoken to recently following the publication of these proposals are very worried indeed that cases will be lost because witnesses fail to attend and provide evidence.

Not only would there be a cost to the public purse but the effects on the victims could be devastating which would be a travesty following the commendable approach of the last government handing responsibility for commissioning victims' services to Police and Crime Commissioners and placing victims at the centre of our Criminal Justice System.

I don't think sufficient weight has been given to the extra costs involved for the victims, the witnesses, professionals, police and the magistrates. We need to remember our magistrates provide great public service as volunteers who receive no remuneration for their effort. It is also true that many magistrates are local people who understand the area and we know from experience in other grand schemes such as 'Police Scotland' that big is not always better!

Please write to your MPs expressing your concerns and send a response to the Ministry of Justice at Post Point 1.13, 102 Petty France, London SW1H 9AJ or email estatesconsultation@hmcts.gsi.gov.uk

With your help I hope common sense will prevail and together we can keep justice local, save money and look after our victims.

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