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Access to justice for all is a fundamental principle of the legal system in England and Wales. An essential part of this, in my opinion, is the need for our clients to be able to access a court or tribunal within a reasonable distance of their home. The sad reality is that many families in Sussex could be left with no local court provision in their areas after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced in February 2016 the proposed closure of the Eastbourne and Chichester Combined Courts, despite local opposition. West Sussex Resolution is so concerned about the ability of family clients to access the court system in the future that it has taken decisive action.
In July 2016 West Sussex Resolution put forward a proposal that the suitable local provision should be the utilisation of the former Chichester magistrates court building as an alternative, slightly smaller combined court. It is a modern building and previous usage figures suggest that such a court is likely to be used at full capacity.
In September 2016, the Ministry of Justice announced that their proposal for suitable alternative local provision would be at the old Havant Magistrates Court. West Sussex Resolution found this proposal to be neither suitable nor local as Havant is out of county in Hampshire and a huge expanse of West Sussex is still left without a family court.
Suitable alternative provision is vital for families in the Chichester area. The drive from central Chichester to Worthing Family Court is at least 40 minutes by car without traffic, but in rush hour it can take in excess of an hour. If you live in Selsey on the other side of Chichester, the drive is an hour on a clear run. If court users are being asked to travel to Brighton this could mean a drive of an hour and a half, 2 hours if you live to the west of Chichester. Those who are reliant on public transport face even longer difficult journeys, particularly in light of the recent problems with Southern Rail.
There will a huge burden of time and expense placed on court users who are forced to make these journeys to access the assistance of the court with their separation or arrangements for their children. It places a further strain on families at what is already a difficult time. This will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our society, who have already had their access to justice undermined by cuts to legal aid, the most. Court users may need to arrange child care and time off work, often unpaid for those on zero hour contracts, for the best part of a day simply to attend a 30 minute directions appointment.
West Sussex Resolution’s concern about the wholesale closure of all of Chichester’s law courts is shared by politicians in the Chichester area, including Chichester MP Andrew Tyrie. West Sussex Resolution wrote to the MoJ in December 2016 to say that it intended to issue judicial review proceedings if the MoJ did not consider its proposal. The Ministry of Justice has since announced that it has suspended the closure of the Chichester Combined Court and the sale of Chichester Magistrates Court building whilst it reconsiders the West Sussex Resolution proposal to retain the Chichester Magistrates Court building as a new Combined Court.
West Sussex Resolution remain hopeful that a Combined Court can be retained in the town. It is still to be seen whether their proposal will be accepted but it is certainly heartening to know the lengths that family practitioners in Sussex will go to protect our local justice system.
I would urge anyone who feels strongly about this issue to write to Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Justice to express your support for the retention of a court and of family justice provision in the Chichester district.
This blog was originally written by Lauren Guy. For a consultation with a member of our specialist family law team please contact us.