A leading peer has waded into the row over the future of Newcastle Magistrates’ Court and claimed the North East justice system is “going to hell in a handcart”.
Labour peer Jeremy Beecham, the shadow justice minister in the House of Lords and a long-time solicitor in Newcastle, has demanded answers over the future of the city centre building after the cells were condemned as a fire risk.
Solicitors accused HM Courts & Tribunals Service of closing the court “by stealth” after a letter leaked to The Journal revealed the cells would remain closed until May 7.
It means Newcastle remand hearings are being heard in North Tyneside and those living in Hexham are facing a 30-mile journey following the closure of Tynedale Magistrates’ Court in 2011.
Lord Beecham has now written to Lord Edward Faulks, the justice minister in the Lords, and said the closure of the court would be “devastating” to the city. He called for clarity and asked what steps had been taken to “ensure custody trials can be listed” in Newcastle.
Last night Lord Beecham, who was previously leader of Newcastle City Council, said the legal system in the North East was “going to hell in a handcart” following crippling budget cuts to legal aid and the probation service.
He said: “I’m concerned at what looks to be a potential undermining of the justice system which has seen the closure of many court buildings up and down the country and diminished the role of lay justices.”
He added: “There are already concerns about the prevalence of full-time magistrates and, coupled with the closure of courts, it risks ceasing to be local justice and becoming more of a professional, centralised system.
“The cuts were bad enough when I was in local government but it’s worse now. With cuts to legal aid and the probation service, the system is going to hell in a handcart. It would be a serious blow to the administration of justice in Newcastle if the court were to close. It is for the Ministry of Justice and the courts service to solve the problem, not the police commissioner.”
Solicitors accused the court service of refusing to shoulder the financial burden of upgrading the cells. And police commissioner Vera Baird said the court service had failed to act sooner despite knowing the Northumbria Police station on Market Street was earmarked for closure.
Last night Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes called for a resolution. He said: “I think it’s very important that for justice to be seen to be done that we retain a magistrates court in Newcastle. I have met with the chair of the Newcastle bench of magistrates to discuss the situation and we both have a shared ambition for Newcastle to have its own magistrates’ court.
“The courts service, the police and the city council will be working together to find a way to keep the magistrates’ court in the city.”