Video link may be all that remains of seat of justice

There was a concerted and successful campaign to keep the court in 2010  but it was game over by December 2013. SG190810-223TW
There was a concerted and successful campaign to keep the court in 2010 but it was game over by December 2013. SG190810-223TW
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A live-evidence video link to courts in other towns could be the last flicker of life in Spalding’s centuries old role as a seat of justice.

There were courts here several centuries before British history’s most memorable date, 1066.

G4S security officer Karen Dexter locks the court one the last hearing day.

G4S security officer Karen Dexter locks the court one the last hearing day.

The Sessions House – also known as Spalding Magistrates’ Court – opened for hearings known as midsummer quarter sessions on June 30, 1843 and continued until the lights went out in 2013.

A former clerk to the justices at Boston often recounted a tale of JPs from that town taking a horse-drawn carriage ride to Spalding’s Sheep Market to look with envy on the new court building in all its castle-inspired splendour.

Civic rivalry meant Boston couldn’t be outdone. The clerk would say: “The justices said ‘we’ll have one just like it, but make ours bigger by one-third’.”

Boston’s copycat court in the shadow of The Stump is bigger by one-third, but it closed around nine years ago and has been a huge drain on the public purse ever since with no users or buyers.

Some of the lawyers who fought to keep the court - (from left) Mike Alexdander, Julie Atkinson, Anita Toal and Dav Naghen. SG030513-118TW

Some of the lawyers who fought to keep the court - (from left) Mike Alexdander, Julie Atkinson, Anita Toal and Dav Naghen. SG030513-118TW

But Boston was lucky and allowed a magistrates’ court on another site.

Spalding Magistrates’ Court was ‘de-listed’ on December 19, 2013 – a cost-cutting decision to send Spalding’s work to Boston, Grantham, Skegness or Lincoln.

As the last case in Spalding’s Court 1 finished, presiding magistrate Richard Spinks said: “We could say this ends a chapter in the history of this court building and a new chapter is about to open up and we don’t know what that is.”

South Holland and The Deepings MP John Hayes, who teamed up with local lawyers and others to try to save the court from closure, has said repeatedly: “I am determined not to let that building become a white elephant. I want it put to community use.”

RBL branch chairman Colin Jackman (right) hopes schoolchildren will be able to visit the court to learn about the legal system.

RBL branch chairman Colin Jackman (right) hopes schoolchildren will be able to visit the court to learn about the legal system.

With help from the MP, Spalding branch of The Royal British Legion (RBL) is talking to the courts’ service and hope to lease the Sessions House as a headquarters in place of cramped accommodation in a detached house in Spring Gardens.

Other organisations, like Spalding’s Agapecare Foodbank, may go into the building under the Legion umbrella.

RBL branch chairman Colin Jackman said: “One of the things I would like to do as one of the lead officers is to get the schools involved and show them how a court works. It would be role play for them. We could do it because, in my view, that court room (Court 1) could not be changed. It would destroy what it’s all about.”

But one tiny corner of the Sessions House could have a connection with a real court.

Mr Hayes said a senior courts’ official has confirmed the option of a witness video link is being explored and the ‘long line’ has been tested.

The MP said: “They said it was working at the Spalding end, but they have got some issues at the court end to make sure that the images are of sufficient quality.”

Mr Hayes is pressing for Spalding’s court building to be the base for any video link, but says the courts’ service could choose to put it in another secure public building.

He said: “We want to get away from the issue of people having to travel long distances for hearings, which was one of the arguments we used against closure of the court in the first place.”

Solicitor Mike Alexander, who first sounded alarm bells about the latest closure threat to the court in August 2012, welcomed Mr Hayes’ ongoing fight for a video link.

Difficulties for defendants and witnesses travelling to other courts was one of the main planks of the campaign to save the court. It fell on deaf ears, but the reality is hitting home now.

Mr Alexander said: “There’s a young lad from Spalding who has missed three court appearances – in Lincoln and Skegness – because he lives with his mum, who’s on benefits, and they can’t afford to travel.”

He said there are legal and technical difficulties with a video link, as lawyers must get the court’s consent for a witness to give evidence that way – and the courts’ technology in Lincolnshire often suffers breakdowns.

Mr Alexander said police officers wouldn’t be allowed to give evidence via video link without a change in the law.

He said: “A video link is an absolutely brilliant idea, but there are a number of practical difficulties that have to be resolved first.”