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Hard questions as closed courts cost PS22k a month.

Byline: Jonathan Walker Political Editor

TAXPAYERS are spending more than PS22,000 a month on maintaining empty courthouses closed by the Government because ministers can't find a buyer for the buildings which were closed as part of a cull announced in 2010.

Ministers said at the time that the aim was to dispose of buildings which were unfit to be courts, and denied Labour claims that the policy was designed to save money. But since then, a number of properties have been sold. The former Rugby Magistrates' and County Court went for PS285,000 when it was sold on the open market, while the former Sutton Coldfield magistrates court was sold for PS440,000. The figures were released by Ministers in response to questions in Parliament.

But the same figures show that a number of buildings have been sold and are standing empty.

They include Burton-upon-Trent County Court in Staffordshire, which is costing taxpayers PS3,683 a month to maintain.

Market Drayton Magistrates' Court in Shropshire is costing PS3,894 per month.

Oswestry Magistrates' Court & County Court in Shropshire is also empty. The estimated maintenance cost is just PS77 a month because it is part of a larger complex and other parts of the building are used.

Redditch County Court in Worcestershire is costing PS2,705 a month to maintain.

Stoke-on-Trent Magistrates' Court is costing PS10,804 per month.

And Stourbridge County Court in the Black Country is costing PS1,433 per month.

Quizzed in the House of Commons, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "Clearly, we want to sell an unused property as soon as we can, and we are working to do so, but we of course need to have a buyer before we can sell it, and we are constantly looking for buyers."

Ministers say that the closure program was saved taxpayers a total of PS31.3 million up to September this year.

But MPs are campaigning to try to prevent further closures.

Ian Austin (Lab Dudley North) presented a petition to the Commons signed by 2,000 people opposing plans to transfer criminal cases from Dudley Magistrates Court to criminal courts in Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Walsall. He said: "The fact that 2,000 people have signed our petition in just a few weeks shows how strongly local people feel.

"Magistrates, victims, witnesses and others directly involved with the court tell me that closure would make it harder for local victims to testify, harder for local people to volunteer in court and harder for the press to deter crime by reporting on local cases.

"Local people want to see criminals held to account for the crimes they commit in Dudley."

Under the Government's plans, all criminal casework would cease at Dudley Magistrates' Court, in The Inhedge.

Instead defendants in the region would have to travel to Sandwell and Walsall to have their cases heard. Meanwhile all trials in the Black Country would instead go to Wolverhampton Magistrates' Court along with youth cases.

Dudley would become a civil, family and tribunal centre under the scheme which is out to consultation until October 21.

Raising concerns in the House of Commons, Valerie Vaz (Lab Walsall South) asked: "Will the Justice Secretary confirm that there will be no further court closures, which could undermine the administration of justice?" Mr Grayling told her: "We will continue to review the court estate on an ongoing basis, but at this time I have no plans for substantial court closures. There might be occasional changes in the system, such as those we have seen recently in Liverpool, but I am not planning major changes to the court estate at this time."

Labour has claimed that some courthouses appear to have been sold off below market rate and taxpayers are not getting value for money.

The Opposition called on the Public Accounts Committee to investigate the closure programme and Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said some of the courts sold on the open market fetched less than he expected.

Mr Khan said: "Given that considerable resource is continuing to fund mothballed courts, the public rightly want to know that their money is not being wasted on the upkeep of courts that have been closed for some time."


Fenton Magistrates Court, Stoke on Trent, top, Redditch County Court, > centre, and Oswestry Magistrates Court, bottom, have all been closed
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 19, 2013
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