The Chichester City Council Assembly Room was the location on the evening of Tuesday 27 September for those opposed to the Court closures to hear arguments against this plan. The meeting was chaired by Peter Budge, Mayor of Chichester, with a Panel of speakers comprising His Honour Judge Robin Barrett QC Retired Circuit Judge, Edward Cook Solicitor at Anderson Rowntree Solicitor and Vice Chair of Resolution West Sussex, Sara Fildes Solicitor and Director of Owen-Kenny Partnership and committee member of Chichester district Law Society, Edward Hand Criminal Barrister and Louise Goldsmith Leader of West Sussex County Council.
Robin Barratt opened the proceedings citing several areas of objection. First, is the significance of the removal of a system of justice from our City; this fails to understand history and he described this as a ‘sacrifice on the altar of money’. Second, is the flawed process that was followed. While the start was promising it soon became clear that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) had the end result in mind from the start. This has resulted in West Sussex being only one of two Counties without such Courts (the other being Northumberland). Third, the judges were not properly consulted throughout. This was exemplified by an early suggestion for a combined court to alleviate the closure being subsequently rejected because ‘sadly your proposal came too late’; this despite the promise not to close the Courts until local provisions were in place. This aspect was one covered by Edward Cook who followed Robin with a detailed chronology of the process.
The logistical problems faced by those having to interact with the legal system will only increase. Edward Hand cited cases with which he has had to deal and pointed out the lack of awareness that for any one case 20 to 30 support staff (court officers, clerks, judge, barrister etc) are involved. It was understood that the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne (who sent her apologies for not being present) is an advocate of video links, but experience has shown that such links have often proved unreliable and are not adequate to deal with the many different persons involved.
Cases will take much longer to be heard, asserted Sara Fildes from her experience as a Family Solicitor. It is not unusual for a parent and children to have to travel to another area to attend court, experience delays and find that the children have to be registered in this strange area to attend schools. The lack of a local court will further extend timescales while the expected population growth in our area will exacerbate the situation further. She felt that the other courts will not be able to cope.
The formal proceedings ended with Louise Goldsmith joining with other speakers in expressing anger on the closure decision and sorrow for local residents who will be faced with the inevitable increased disruption to their lives.
A lively discussion then followed chaired by the Mayor with around 20 or so local residents making their concerns felt. The support provided by the local MP Andrew Tyrie was acknowledged and everyone was urged to write individually to him with their objections and concerns (contact details below). There was a strong case for a Judicial Review of the process and this is one route that is apparently being considered.
The absence of a representative from the Chichester District Council was noted. The view was expressed that the CDC has divided loyalties and sees the land presently occupied by the Courts as an opportunity for development as part of a Southern Gateway project rather than one to be protected for judicial use.
One speaker noted those in more rural or distant areas will be particularly badly hit as they will have to get to the transport hubs in Chichester before they can begin their journey to courts elsewhere.
The Mayor concluded the meeting by thanking all those that attended. They were invited to leave email addresses as they left so that they could be informed of any follow up actions.
Report by Bob Wiggins (Editor)
Contact details for Andrew Tyrie
House of Commons