A row over the future of Newcastle Magistrates’ Court erupted last night as the Government was accused of closing the city centre site “by stealth”.
Cells at the historic Market Lane building were condemned as a fire risk in December with staff and legal teams across the North East told they would temporarily close for a major upgrade.
It’s claimed the site – which is part of the Northumbria Police station being replaced by a new building at nearby Forth Banks – needs a refurbishment worth more than £100,000.
A letter leaked to The Journal has revealed the closure of the cells has been extended to May 7 as negotiations are staged between HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and the Northumbria Police crime commissioner.
Solicitor Lewis Pearson last night said the development was “closure by stealth” and accused the court service of ignoring the “devastating impact” it would have on Newcastle.
And Vera Baird QC accused the Government department of failing to act sooner in finding an alternative location, despite knowing about the station’s closure for “many, many years”.
Mr Pearson also said the HMCTS was trying to avoid shouldering the financial burden of maintaining the cells as they looked to implement crippling budget cuts across a swathe of departments. Mr Pearson, who acted as a local Law Society representative at a steering group into the legal aid cuts earlier this year, said: “This temporary closure puts enormous pressure on the HMCTS to take the financial responsibility. It’s closure of the courts by stealth and is disastrous for the city.”
In a letter distributed to North East defence solicitors in Newcastle, Louise Fletcher, the Deputy Justices Clerk for Northumbria, said the HMCTS was in negotiations with Ms Baird to find a “pragmatic solution”.
All Newcastle defendants held on remand are currently being transferred to the court at North Tyneside as officials work to upgrade the cells in Newcastle. It means defendants from rural areas such as Hexham are facing a 30-mile trek across the North East to make court appearances after ministers closed Tynedale Magistrates’ Court in 2011. Ms Baird said: “The provision of court cells is entirely the responsibility of HMCTS which has known about the closure of the police station and cells for many years, in common with everyone else.
“The decision long pre-dates the police and crime commissioner and was taken by the police authority. Northumbria Police have offered to help with other premises wholly out of a supportive approach, but the responsibility is not theirs.
“The cells were condemned by inspectorates last year and ordered to close and if anything happened in them it may be our responsibility as owners of the police station.”
Justice ministers are already under fire over their decision to stage a radical overhaul of the legal aid service as well as the probation service.
Earlier this month, solicitors, barristers and probation workers staged a 36-hour walk-out in protest at the cuts, which they claim will further “erode” the North East justice system.
In a letter sent this month, Ms Fletcher wrote: “HMCTS has been in discussions with the crime commissioner to try to come up with a pragmatic solution which will allow HMCTS to run the business fully, including dealing with those defendants in custody, but it has not been possible at this stage to reach an agreement which will allow use of the cells at Market Street by HMCTS.
“As it is currently not possible to use the cells to hold prisoners and conduct remand hearings, it will also not be possible to list custody trials at Newcastle Magistrates’ Court. All custody trials currently listed will be accommodated at other courthouses within Northumbria.”
Mr Pearson said: “If the court closes, it could mean that Newcastle is one of the only large cities which is not served by its own magistrates’ court. It’s not just prestige, people have access to a magistrates’ court for all sorts of reasons, including family court functions and licensing functions. There’s also an immediate effect on staff whose jobs will be in peril.”
An HMCTS spokesperson said: “The cells at Newcastle Magistrates’ Court are owned by the police, but used by HMCTS. The cells are currently not being used as they do not meet the required standards. We are working closely with Northumbria Police to find a resolution to this situation.”