PEOPLE on low incomes in Huntingdonshire could risk losing their homes unnecessarily because court officials are being moved to Peterborough, senior judges and local charities fear. Residents threatened with eviction could be particularly vulnerable to th
PEOPLE on low incomes in Huntingdonshire could risk losing their homes unnecessarily because court officials are being moved to Peterborough, senior judges and local charities fear.
Residents threatened with eviction could be particularly vulnerable to the move, which means that advice will be available from officials only on the six days a month that Huntingdon County Court is sitting in George Street.
If they need urgent help on other days to avoid losing their homes, they may have to travel to Peterborough - if they can afford the fare.
Although the administration staff would remain in Peterborough, the problem should ease after June or July next year, when the county court moves to the new combined justice centre across the ring road. HM Courts Service (HMCS) plans to have advice available across the counter five days a week.
But judges Robert Blomfield and Anthony Wharton are seriously concerned about what happens in the meantime, they told last week's meeting of the county court users' group.
They acknowledged that other civil claimants and respondents could cope by filing claims and petitions on-line. But needy people who could not afford to travel could be denied the protection they were entitled to have from the courts, Judge Blomfield said.
Magistrate Bill Sinclair, who has been campaigning against a move he says is unnecessary, premature and particularly unfair to the most vulnerable members of society, urged the courts service to delay the move until the justice centre opened.
But courts manager Sue Clarke insisted it had to go ahead for health and safety reasons, and because the Government was demanding reductions in the number of court employees. With so few staff remaining at Huntingdon, the court offices could not open to the public on non-sitting days if someone were sick or at lunch, leaving only one colleague in the building.
"It was different when we had four people here," Mrs Clarke told The Hunts Post. "But now there's no security and there's too much work here for two people - we shall be able to share it out in Peterborough."
In practice, she said, little would change as she was working on providing multi-skilled staff at the new centre who were capable of dealing five days a week with enquires about civil and criminal matters - the centre will also house the magistrates' court, a new Crown Court and the Coroner's court.
In the meantime, advice would continue to be available from the Citizens' Advice Bureau and the Huntingdon Independent Advice Centre, as well as from Legal Aid solicitors.
Mrs Clarke pointed out that respondents were given plenty of notice of eviction (and other) hearings so that they had time to visit the court on sitting days to get the necessary paperwork or appear personally before the judge.
Judge Blomfield said: "The reality is that those on high do not really care about what goes on at the coal-face. I personally find it astonishing that a new five-courtroom court (the new combined justice centre), which is bigger than many in the region should be created without any administration to support it. My concern is that there is a real concern of having a real white elephant."
He reminded the group that county courts had been set up deliberately to administer civil justice locally to serve local populations. "Sadly, we have lost the whole concept," he said.
INFORMATION: The Courts Service plans to distribute leaflets through libraries, the CAB, HIAC, doctors' surgeries, social services and The Hunts Post to explain the new arrangements, as well as to post notices outside the George Street court building after the court rises for Christmas in mid-December. The county court will continue to sit in Huntingdon on six days a month until it moves to the combined justice centre, probably next July.