Solicitors' court closure fears

By Hannah Postles
Originally published in the Pontefract & Castleford Express, 19th August 2010.

Worried solicitors fear vulnerable residents will be hardest hit if Pontefract’s County Court is axed in government cost-cutting plans.
Senior staff at Hartley and Worstenholme say the proposed closure of the Horsefair facility – which would see it be merged with Wakefield’s County Court at a new shared site – will have an impact on people in difficult and sensitive situations.

Christopher Sandham, partner and head of family law, told the Express: “If the county court closes it will hit the most vulnerable people who need support – people who need access to justice straight away, like victims of violence in the home.

“A lot of people who use the county court are vulnerable members of the community who may struggle to get to Leeds or Wakefield to attend hearings.

“The county court deals with a wide range of issues, from divorce to small claims disputes. It deals with applications for people to be allowed contact with their children or have their children living with them. It’s extremely busy and the staff there work incredibly hard.

“It is just as important as the magistrates’ court and will be missed if it were to close.”

Arthur Healey, a former senior partner at the firm, believes Pontefract police station – which is expected to close – should be used to create a new combined court centre in the town.

He said: “It would allow the magistrates’ court and county court to operate at the same site, with shared parking.

“Courts should serve their local communities – not the other way round.

“In the consultation documents about the proposed closure, the author has only considered the distance from the existing court in Pontefract to the proposed new centre in Wakefield and the cost of travel between the two.

“What about those who live on the extremities of the existing court jurisdiction? How often does public transport run to Wakefield from Badsworth, Ackworth, Kirk Smeaton, Womersley and Methley?

“They would have to go to Castleford or Pontefract and then onto Wakefield. What is the additional cost to the court users? How much longer will their journeys be? Can they get to court on time?

“Our predecessors provided the courts to serve the local communities – not to reduce the cost to the exchequer.”

Mr Sandham said the proposed closure would also have an impact on the Pontefract branch of the company.

He said: “Some of our lawyers may only be in court for a short period of time and if it’s an urgent case we can get the paperwork to court quickly.

“If they are having to travel to Wakefield they will be wasting time and people will have to pay for solicitors’ travel to Wakefield.”

The Express has launched a campaign to Keep Justice Local and save the town’s magistrates’ and county courts from closure.

Court to close in Pontefract

On Thursday 24th June 2010 the Ministry of Justice outlined proposals that will result in nearly a third of all Courts in England and Wales being closed.

The closures affect both County Courts, that deal with civil and family work, and Magistrates Courts, that deal with criminal and family work.

The effect of this in the Pontefract area will be the closure of both the Pontefract County Court and Pontefract Magistrates Court. The nearest Court to Pontefract will be Wakefield some 25 miles away return.

Clearly this will have a considerable impact upon people who use the Courts in the Pontefract and surrounding area.

Most of that impact will be felt by people who cannot afford legal representation, are not eligible for Public Funding, what used to be known as Legal Aid, and the infirm, disabled and elderly who at the present time find it difficult to travel to their local Court in Pontefract and will find it even more of a difficulty to travel a greater distance. This begs the question as to whether these people are being deprived of their right of access to justice in what the Government describes as “cost cutting measures”.

The Government’s intention is to save some £36 million a year but one has to wonder at what price.

The types of cases dealt with by these Courts include not only civil disputes but also, and perhaps more seriously, cases involving applications for people to be allowed to have contact with their children and indeed even have their children living with them.

It has always been the intention of successive Governments, and indeed of the Courts themselves, to regard going to Court to have the dispute resolved as being a last resort and other ways of resolving disputes through mediation, negotiations and otherwise have become more important. To that end Courts refer cases for mediation.

Hartley & Worstenholme Solicitors are one of only a small number of solicitors in the local area who offer family mediation, see www.hartley-worstenholme.co.uk/category/news/. This is obviously the preferred course of action for all parties but in instances where this breaks down the lack of access to a local Court could well seriously disadvantage more vulnerable members of society and only time will tell as to whether the closure of local Courts, in particular the Pontefract County Court, is a good or bad thing.

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