Mixed results in court campaigns

COURTS campaigners received good and bad news this week. Lawyers in Rugby managed to save their threatened local County Court, but colleagues in York suffered rescheduled criminal hearings because of the lack of Crown Court judges.

Rugby lawyers are celebrating after winning a reprieve over Court Service Agency (CSA) plans to shut the County Court and transfer its business to the Coventry trial centre, more than 15 miles away.

The victory came after an 18-month campaign involving local solicitors, Citizens Advice Bureaux and local authorities. It also follows numerous attempts by lawyers and authorities around the country to stop other closures, all of which have failed.

Jonathan Peacock, solicitor at Shoosmith & Harrison's Rugby office and campaign co-ordinator, said: “The legal profession in Rugby is very pleased. There are many high street firms with private client work here. We were concerned about ordinary private clients facing increased costs and limited access to a court.”

Lawyers, advice agencies and judges in Coventry warned the CSA that some clients of Rugby advice agencies would also be unrepresented if cases came to Coventry.

“Access to justice has got to mean local access, otherwise you disenfranchise people,” said Peacock.

Solicitor Andrew Gabbitas, of Rugby Borough Council, said the campaign received cross-party support. He added: “The court service qualifies this reprieve with the words 'at this time'. We remain vigilant.”

The lawyers began a fierce campaign immediately they heard of the plans, preferring not to wait for formal consultation because of fears of a “fait accompli”, said Peacock.

In York, the Crown Court has transferred last week's caseload to Leeds, because of a shortage of criminal judges, according to local lawyers.

Jenny Bartram, Crombie Wilkinson partner and Yorkshire Law Society secretary, said last minute changes due to shortage of judges had caused “massive inconvenience”.

She said: “The responsibility must surely rest with the Lord Chancellor's Department. The court service can only work with the resources it is given.”