CAMPAIGNERS have warned plans to close Kendal Magistrates Court and County Court will leave hundreds of people without access to local justice.

The Burneside Road building is one of 91 courts across the country being recommended for closure under cost-cutting measures by The Ministry of Justice.

The proposal has been met with fury from local solicitors, who say it would cause ‘massive delays’ in the legal system, increase police workload and disadvantage the most vulnerable members of society.

The Westmorland Gazette:

And today the Gazette is launching a campaign to ‘Keep Justice Local’ and urge the Ministry of Justice to keep the court open.

Kendal’s court building currently deals with criminal court business in the adult and youth courts, family court work such as adoption hearings and civil work including divorce, housing possession, High Court and bankruptcy.

The plan is to move its workload to Barrow Magistrates’ Court and County Court, forcing victims, witnesses and defendants - as well as individuals and businesses involved in civil cases - to make a 40-mile journey.

There is an hourly bus service from Kendal to Barrow which takes around one hour 40 minutes. A return ticket costs £10.80.

A train journey from Kendal to Barrow would require two changes and takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, at a cost of £25.90 for an anytime return.

“Many defendants won’t be able to afford to travel and there will be a big increase in people failing to attend court,” said criminal defence solicitor Suzie Kavanagh, of Milne Moser.

“This will mean delays and an increase in arrest warrants, which will take up even more police time.

“The cost to the public purse will be huge, bearing in mind that victims and witnesses get travelling expenses.

“They’re assuming that everyone drives in rural areas, but a lot of the time you’re dealing with people of limited means.”

Kendal’s court is also the only designated disabled court in Cumbria, where defendants with mobility issues can be brought from cells into the secure dock.

But the Ministry of Justice says it is not well used, costs £241,000 a year to run and last year only operated at 13 per cent of its capacity.

Workington’s court has also been earmarked for closure in the consultation, meaning defendants and witnesses would face round trips of up to 90 miles to Carlisle.

Gill Hague, delivery director at HM Courts & Tribunals Service North West, said she was committed to finding “alternative ways for the public to access the justice system” including video links.

She said: “I appreciate that there are particular challenges accessing public services in, for example, Cumbria.

“We already have well established alternative ways that users can access the justice system.

“There are examples of this: enabling police officers to give evidence over a live link, processes to enable victims, witnesses and defendants to attend hearings over video link, and users in some jurisdictions having cases progressed or considered through telephone hearings or on papers, meaning that they do not need to attend a hearing in person at all.”

But Rachel Broughton, who also works as a criminal defence solicitor for Milne Moser, said the level of investment required in technology would be ‘huge’.

“At the moment the technology is simply not up to it,” she said, “I don’t know how they can suggest they’ve got the time or money to make this a reality.

“It also undermines the gravitas of the legal system if you have people popping up on video link in court talking about a serious case.

“I think the Ministry of Justice should be looking at more innovative ways to use these buildings instead of looking to squash people into two corners of a very big county.”

An online petition to save the court ( attracted almost 200 signatures in 24 hours since being set up, with many comments saying justice “could only be served through a local court.”

One comment said: “I'm the duty solicitor at the county court for housing cases. Closure will mean more evicted families.”

Another commented: “I am part of the enforcement team based at the magistrates court - possible job loss makes me sign this petition.”

The proposals have also been branded a ‘re-victimisation’ of crime victims by Carolyn Hodrien, Victims’ Support Service Director for the North of England.

“Going to court as a victim of crime is already a very scary experience,” she said.

“And it’s going to be made much worse if you have to make longer journeys to an unfamiliar place.

“People say that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system, but they’re clearly not if courts like Kendal, with good facilities, are being closed.”

Richard Rhodes, Cumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner, said the proposed closures in Kendal and Workington “could have a serious impact for victims, witnesses and on police costs.”

Mr Rhodes said: “I will be calling a Safer Cumbria Strategy Board to discuss the matter, and have already made contact with the two relevant MPs.”

South Lakes MP Tim Farron has tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Courts and Tribunals Minister to “reconsider the proposed closures, to allow for local voices to be heard.”

Mr Farron said: “Access to justice is a crucial part of our criminal justice system. Our court is a vital part of the public sector in town.

“I will fight to keep it open and I am urging local people to get involved in the consultation to make their voice heard.”

On the launch of the Gazette''s ‘Keep Justice Local’ campaign called the newspaper's Content Editor Andrew Thomas said: “Closing Kendal’s court would be a hugely retrograde step.

“It would involve victims, witnesses and the accused travelling unacceptably long distances to Barrow.

“Justice should be done and seen to be done in the local area.

“I would urge everyone to sign our coupon (see above) to help save the court.”

The government’s consultation will last for 12 weeks and close on October 8.

* To sign the Gazette's Keep Justice Local campaign, please print off the coupon above and send it to Katie Dickinson, Newsroom, 1 Wainwright's Yard, Kendal, Cumbria, LA9 4DP