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Court closure judicial reviews fail

More grim news for court users as staff vote for one-day strike and overtime ban

20 June 2011

Judicial reviews into the closure of magistrates’ courts in Kent and in Wales have been rejected by the High Court.

North Kent firm Robin Murray & Co brought the challenge against the closure of Sittingbourne Magistrates’ Court, with financial help from Chancery Lane and the Kent Law Society (see solicitors, 31 May 2011).

The Vale of Glamorgan Council challenged the closure of Barry Magistrates’ Court, which would mean that the council was the only one in Wales with no court.

Lord Justice Elias, Mr Justice Beatson and Mr Justice Hickinbottom heard the judicial reviews separately as the arguments involved were different.

Delivering judgment on behalf of the court in R (on the application of Vale of Glamorgan Council) v Lord Chancellor [2011] EWHC 1532 (Admin), Elias LJ said the recent refurbishment of the Barry court had cost £1.9m.

However, he said the MoJ estimated that annual savings from the closure, and the transfer of work to Cardiff, would be around £282,000 and remove the need for a further £255,000 of background maintenance.

Elias LJ said only two out of 45 consultation responses were in favour of closure, though one of these was from the CPS.

“We fully recognise that there were powerful submissions made in support of retaining the Barry court,” he said.

“They may have persuaded some ministers and indeed they were in many respects similar to representations which were made in 2006 when a proposal to close the court was successfully resisted.

“However, the reasons for closing Barry were cogent and clear.

“They were the perception that significant savings could be made by merging the two courts in a manner which the Lord Chancellor was entitled to believe would not overall prejudice the efficiency of the system, notwithstanding that it would have some adverse consequences. This was not an irrational conclusion.”

Lord Justice Elias said he appreciated that the decision to close Barry Magistrates’ Court had caused “much distress to the magistrates and staff, to users of the court, to the council and to the wider community”.

But counsel for the Vale of Glamorgan was attempting to persuade the court “to trespass into the realms of resource allocation, which is not the court’s business”.

Councillor Gordon Kemp, leader of the council, called on the Lord Chancellor, despite the outcome of the judicial review, not to shut the court.

“It is with reluctance that we have to accept the decision of the court,” he said.

Mr Justice Beatson delivered judgment on behalf of the court in R (on the application of Robin Murray & Co) v Lord Chancellor [2011] EWHC 1528 (Admin).

He said the decision to close Sittingbourne Magistrates’ Court was challenged on the basis that the consultation was not carried out properly, the Lord Chancellor had a “perverse” view of the disabled facilities at the court and he had failed to give full consideration to his duty under section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Beatson J said that “to require a public body engaged on a consultation exercise routinely to circulate information about the way its consideration of the matters before it is developing and afford an opportunity for further responses has the potential to lead to a never-ending dialogue”.

He said there may be “exceptional cases” where matters which emerged during a consultation required further consultation.

“One such situation may be where the internal material undermines the value of the responses that have been made to a consultation,” Beatson J said. “We are, however, satisfied that this is not one of those exceptional cases.”

He said that there were mixed views as to whether disabled facilities were better at Sittingbourne Magistrates’ or at Medway Magistrates’ in Chatham, where some of the work would be transferred.

In the light of this evidence, he concluded that it could not be said that the Lord Chancellor’s decision regarding disabled access was Wednesbury unreasonable or failed to comply with his duty under the DDA.

Beatson J said it was understandable that court closures raised “serious concerns” and the principle of local justice was important, but the application for judicial review must be dismissed.

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Children Courts & Judiciary