A leading peer has penned an open letter to Ministers saying there is “considerable disquiet” over the future of the North East court system.
Lord Jeremy Beecham has called for an urgent consultation with justice minister Lord Edward Faulks after claiming the temporary closure of cells at Newcastle Magistrates’ Court had caused “problems for prisoners, victims and their families”.
In a stinging letter, Lord Beecham, the shadow justice minister in the House of Lords and a long-time solicitor in Newcastle, claims there is “considerable disquiet” surrounding the future of courts in the North East with rumours of future closures.
He points to the “fiasco” surrounding the proposed new Sunderland Magistrates’ Court, which, due to delays, has sucked-up more than £2m of taxpayer’s cash without a single brick being laid.
Last night Lord Beecham, who was previously leader of Newcastle City Council, said: “There are specific issues surrounding the immediate future of the court in Newcastle and also questions about what is going to happen to the court system on Tyneside which seems to be in considerable doubt. It need clarifying.”
Cuts to legal aid, the privatisation of the probation service and the temporary closure of the court cells in Newcastle has heaped pressure on the Ministry of Justice and HM Court and Tribunal Service in recent months.
Last week officials confirmed eight of the cells in Newcastle had been brought into line with health and safety regulations and would re-open on June 2.
For months remand hearings have been heard in North Tyneside and those living in Hexham faced a 30-mile journey following the closure of Tynedale Magistrates’ Court in 2011.
It prompted Lord Beecham has now written to Lord Faulks 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.
Now he has claimed that the court cells closure caused delays for remand prisoners and even meant they were unnecessarily kept in cells because there was not
In the letter to Lord Faulks he said: “There is considerable disquiet about both the present position and the future of the court service in the area. I understand more court closures are being considered, for example in Gateshead, South Shields and North Tyneside.
“Given the fiasco in Sunderland where large amounts of money have been spent on a proposed new court complex, but where the scheme appears to have been mothballed, it is surely necessary for there to be a full consultation with all relevant partners, local authorities, magistrates court committees, practitioners and court users on the future of the service on Tyneside.”
He added: “As an illustration of the problem, I am told that on April 2 seven people were transferred to the North Tyneside Court, which was unable to take their cases, with the result that the seven were remanded in custody over the bank holiday week-end.
“Another defendant coming from Hexham - 23 miles west of Newcastle whose court was closed some time ago - arrived at court to be told that as a potential custody case it would have to be transferred to North Shields and the case was accordingly adjourned for four days.”
A HMCTS spokesman said: “All Bank Holiday and Saturday remand hearings in the area have been heard in a centralised remand court at North Tyneside Magistrates’ Court since January 2014, following a consultation. Therefore the current closure of the cells at Newcastle has no impact on remands over the Bank Holiday weekend.”