NORTH Devon's criminal defence solicitors have reacted angrily to plans to reduce the number of hours North Devon Magistrates' Court opens, with a leading lawyer describing the move as "the extinction of criminal justice" in the area.
Proposals revealed in last week's Journal would see the number of court sessions in Barnstaple fall from between six and eight to three to four per week.
And North Devon based solicitors who would be affected by the move have sprung into action.
A letter to Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) representing the views of seven North Devon law firms has been prepared by Toller Beattie LLP's leading criminal lawyer, Tim Hook, while another solicitor has started an e-petition against the planned closure on the government's direct.gov website.
The seven firms represented in Mr Hook's letter are Bazeley, Barnes and Bazeley, Brewer, Harding and Rowe, Michael Oerton Solicitors, Slee Blackwell, Smiths Solicitors, Tony Dart Solicitor and Toller Beattie LLP.
The letter said all the solicitors concerned were "profoundly shocked and alarmed" at the Ministry of Justice's proposals and they feel the move would represent an end to criminal justice in the area.
Mr Hook was also highly critical of the timing of HMCTS's move. Sending a letter to law firms at the start of the summer holiday period, and giving just two weeks to respond, he said, "smacks of a well crafted plan to deliver devastating proposals at a time when people may be too distracted to respond".
The proposals, Mr Hook said, seem to be as a result of a perceived fall in workload at North Devon Magistrates' Court.
The fall, though, has been seen nationally and is the result of government policy, which Mr Hook said, could easily change.
He said: "Although we would acknowledge there has been some reduction in workload nationally we do not necessarily share the view this is a one way trend and certainly not to an extent justifying the planned extinction of criminal justice in North Devon."
The letter also deals with the logistical nightmare defendants, witnesses and victims of crime could face if forced to attend court in Exeter rather than Barnstaple.
The Magistrates' Court's jurisdiction covers 1,600 square miles with public transport, even to Barnstaple, irregular, infrequent and expensive, Mr Hook said.
He said if cases are moved to Exeter there will be a dramatic increase in bail breaches, with people simply unable to arrive in court on time, despite their best efforts.
And North Devon's small and long serving contingent of defence lawyers would face the same difficulties, with trips to Exeter necessary for trials that do or do not take place, remand hearings, sentencing hearings, video link hearings and more.
Mr Hook finished his letter with a direct question to HMCTS officers.
"As you pull up a chair and start to wonder at the most extravagant national show in decades, promoting the noble aspirations of fair play and equal opportunities for the disadvantaged and disabled, is it not time to pause, reflect and revise a callous plan to bludgeon the life out of a vital institution representing those very objectives in this large community for hundreds of years."
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