Lawyers ridicule proposal for West Sussex to lose its only crown court

Lawyers gathered outside Chichester Crown Court on Tuesday afternoon, just before taking part in a separate charity walk, to state their opposition to the proposed closure. Front and centre: William Emerson of Pallant Chambers and Sara-Jayne Fildes of the Owen Kenny Partnership 'PICTURE BY KATE SHEMILT KS1500437-1
Lawyers gathered outside Chichester Crown Court on Tuesday afternoon, just before taking part in a separate charity walk, to state their opposition to the proposed closure. Front and centre: William Emerson of Pallant Chambers and Sara-Jayne Fildes of the Owen Kenny Partnership 'PICTURE BY KATE SHEMILT KS1500437-1

LEADING lawyers have ridiculed the logic for closing the county’s only crown court, saying the government’s reasoning is flawed.

President of the Chichester and District Law Society, Sara-Jayne Fildes, said the reason court rooms at Chichester Crown Court were not always open was in fact down to the government failing to pay for replacement judges to cover annual leave.

Sara-Jayne Fildes

Sara-Jayne Fildes

“What the government can’t do is take away funding for judges and then turn around and say the court is underused,” she said. “You can’t get away from the fact that I think the stats are flawed.”

In July, the government announced plans to shut down 91 courts and tribunals across England and Wales, including Chichester’s crown, magistrates’ and county courts, leading many to claim the concept of local justice was being eroded.

Nationally, the buildings being consulted on represent 16 per cent of hearing rooms, which the government said were used on average for only a third of their available time.

However, this figure raised eyebrows in Chichester.

It’s a fundamental principle that people have the opportunity to see justice being done

Sara-Jayne Fildes, president of the Chichester and District Law Society

“Of all those courts that have been allocated for closure, it’s interesting to note that Chichester is used the most,” said Miss Fildes.

“At 78-per-cent capacity, it is one of the highest usages of all the 91 courts that are targeted for closure.”

She said the way this data was collected meant it only looked at when the courts were open.

“It’s not taken into account the volume of work going through the court. That’s hugely important,” she said.

She said the only reason Chichester’s crown court ever would be closed would be when judges were unavailable.

“If Chichester court is at 78-per-cent capacity and you think the reasons the court doors hadn’t opened the rest of the time, nobody’s looked at that at all.”

She cited incidences where there were no replacements as a judge was ill, a replacement had not been booked when one was on annual leave and even when Chichester judges had to go to other courts to cover for absent judges there.

“My experience is that I believe that the figures do not accurately reflect the demand for court time,” she said.

Concern has also been raised at the extent of housebuilding proposed for the area.

Miss Fildes spoke of housing developments Bersted and Roussillon which are making a big increase to the population in the area and more people who could potentially need access to justice, whether that is as victims, defendants, witnesses or complainants.

“We’ve got huge housing developments at Roussillon and Bersted and more to come and all these people can no longer have access to any justice locally.”

She said of housebuilding: “It brings with it sadly an increase in domestic abuse and certain crime isn’t going down, it’s going up.”

She said ‘really vulnerable’ individuals in Bognor Regis, Chichester, Selsey, Midhurst and Petworth could all suffer if the courts were to be closed.

“It’s hugely important to at least have the opportunity to go to court and have the case being heard in its entirety,” she said.

“It’s a fundamental principle that people have the opportunity to see justice being done.

She said this principle was being ‘taken away’.

“Once it’s gone, it will never ever return,” she said.

Response

THE Observer approached Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service to put some of the comments to it.

These included the 78-per-cent usage figure possibly under-representing the amount the court was used and also the doubts raised on the local transport network to meet the time estimates put forward.

A spokesman said: “The whole point is that the consultation set out a proposal but it’s just that – it’s a consultation.”

He said if there was strong local opposition and a number of views put forward, this would all be taken into consideration.

“All the detail was put together. It’s out there for consultation.

“We welcome their comments and we want them to respond to us.”

He continued: “It’s very much a consultation.

“We’re looking to modernise the service but want to hear the views.

“All points will be taken into consideration before any final decisions are made.”

At the time of launching the consultation, it was said the buildings being consulted on represented 16 per cent of hearing rooms across England and Wales, which were, on average, used for only a third of their available time.

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