Bath Court, the focal point of justice and the law in our City, may be about to close. The Ministry of Justice, headed ominously by Michael Gove, is on the austerity warpath. As a so called ‘unprotected’ department there must be savings and they must be big. Enormous in fact. What is the impoverished minister to do?
Selling off the court estate is very much the plan. Over 30 courts are on the hitlist for closure within 6 months. In truth, the government has been steadily selling off smaller, little used courts for some years now, typically part time or rural courts. Locally, Frome Court was the most recent to go a few years ago, with its work being transferred to Yeovil.
This time, however, there are some proper courts on the list, and Bath combined Magistrates and County Court is one of them. Move it all to Bristol is the simple scheme. Bristol has new Private Finance Initiative buildings that have the government locked into eye wateringly expensive long term contracts – so they cannot close, whatever the cost.
This all about money – sell the court for some sort term cash, combine some running costs and make a longer term saving. But what will be the real cost?
Local Justice means the people of this city – residents, the business community, tourists – can access justice. Whether that is having a county court so you can sue someone, or a victim of domestic violence can get an injunction, or an unhappy couple can get divorced. Or it might be the Magistrates Court, to ensure that the local troublemaker gets his comeuppance for stealing your car. Maybe he’ll even be prevented from doing it again. Local Justice means local Magistrates who know the city. It means local police officers who know how the city works. It means priorities that suit Bath and surrounds, not some national policy. It means that a locally elected Police Commissioner can see through change here. Local Justice is what works in Bath, not Bristol.
For the vulnerable and marginalised the situation is even worse. Those who are homeless, illiterate or perhaps disabled find it even harder to access justice than most. Creating barriers to justice saves money because it excludes citizens from sensibly participating. That is injustice.
It is plain that when a court closes the prospects of it ever reopening are more or less zero, so if this resource is lost it will likely be gone forever. The City of Bath has had a court for centuries and whilst the deliberations of a grand jury at the Bath Assizes may be a distant memory, the need for a local centre of justice in the city is both long standing and prescient. With a growing population, a thriving business community, challenges with transport and development, Bath is as much in need of a city Court as it ever has been. Whether your concern is about antisocial behaviour or evening rowdiness, or local children at risk being speedily supported into safety by the Local Authority, or commercial disputes being resolved expeditiously and efficiently, this is all the business or your local court. Decisions are presided over by judges and magistrates who know the place. More importantly, they care about the city and those who live and work here.
This is what will be lost if the court closes. Losing local justice is the cost of closure.
Several of the concerned local community will meet this week with our new MP Ben Howlett. It is his administration that is wielding the axe. There is currently a consultation process ongoing. It’s time to save our local Court and preserve local justice for the city.