Rotherham’s MPs have said the closure of the town’s Magistrates’ Court is a ‘huge blow’ to local justice.
The Ministry of Justice has announced the court will be shut by the end of this year as part of a national programme of 86 court and tribunal closures.
Cases will be transferred to Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, with the closure in Rotherham set to save around £640,000 in running costs.
It is part of plans that will see people only coming to court for the ‘most sensitive or complex cases’, with greater use of technology to allow other matters to be dealt with via video links.
A joint statement by MPs John Healey, Kevin Barron and Sarah Champion said: “We managed to fight off similar plans four years ago, so it was frustrating and disappointing to see the proposals come back last year.
“The Government have been determined to press ahead with their plans, ignoring strong concerns raised by us and local magistrates.
“Closing the Rotherham court is deeply wrong and a huge blow to the delivery of justice locally.
“The court is one of the most visible symbols of justice in our town and removing it could further undermine confidence in the justice system, which has already been badly shaken in recent years.”
A report by the Ministry of Justice said just 16 responses had been received in a consultation about the closure, with 11 letters of opposition, two neutral and three in favour.
Concerns were raised the move will affect access to justice and put pressure on the already ‘very busy’ Sheffield court.
A magistrate told the consultation: “There is a real problem that Rotherham people with limited means, mental health issues or disabilities will see the journey to Sheffield and its attendant cost as a real barrier to local justice.”
A legal professional said: “I issue emergency applications without notice in Rotherham Court, sitting and waiting while a district judge fits us in due to the good working relationships we have with court staff and will no longer be able to do this.
“Sheffield is already very busy and it concerns me that they will not be able to fit in such applications so quickly.”
The Ministry of Justice said there are ‘excellent road, rail and bus links’ to Sheffield and travel costs for victims, witnesses and defendants found not guilty of crimes can be reclaimed.
The report said: “Access to justice is not just about proximity to a court. The changes we are making will make it easier for people to access justice.
“We are reforming the system so that fewer people will need to physically go to court.”
It added: “Both crime and family hearings conducted by magistrates from both Rotherham Magistrates’ Court and family work currently heard in Sheffield Combined Court can be incorporated into the sitting patterns at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court, without additional courtroom allocation.
“There is sufficient cell capacity at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court to cope with future integration demands.
“Sheffield Magistrates’ Court is currently utilised to approximately 44 per cent of its capacity and Sheffield Combined Court to approximately 59 per cent of its capacity.”
Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid, said of the national closure programme: “We are investing over £700m over the next 4 years to update the courts estate, installing modern IT systems and making the justice system more efficient and effective for modern users.
“In a society where people transact digitally in so many aspects of life, they expect a service to be available when they need it.
“Access to justice cannot, therefore, be defined solely by proximity to a court or tribunal building.
“It must be defined by how easy it is for people – witnesses, victims, claimants, police and lawyers – to access the service they need, however they choose to do so.
“Working closely with the judiciary, we have begun installing Wi-Fi and digital systems in our criminal courts but much more needs to be done.
We want to use modern technology, including online plea, claims and evidence systems and video conferencing, to reduce the need for people to travel to court.
“Face-to-face hearings should in future be reserved only for the most sensitive or complex cases.”