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June decision on new court in Sunderland

After years of campaigning for a new Sunderland Centre for Justice, two Wearside MP's have secured a commitment from Parliament.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South and Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central, have secured a commitment from Lucy Frazer MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice.

A decision on the future of the Sunderland Court Estate will now be made by June 2018. 

The minister made the commitment during Tuesday’s Justice Questions in the House of Commons, when she was pressed by Ms Phillipson to end the eight-year saga over the future of the estate.

Later the same day, she wrote to Ms Phillipson and Ms Elliott to confirm that a decision will be made by June 2018 following consideration of the viable options for meeting HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s future capacity requirements. 

The minister’s pledge is the culmination of years of dogged campaigning by Ms Phillipson and Ms Elliott.

Since 2010, Bridget has maintained pressure on the government on this issue by tabling over 50 written and oral parliamentary questions to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and by forcing meetings with Sir Oliver Heald QC MP in November 2016, his successor Dominic Raab MP in October 2017, and with Ms Frazer in January of this year. 

Bridget and Julie’s campaign was launched following the closure of Houghton Magistrates’ Court in 2011 on the understanding that a new modern courts complex was to be built in Sunderland.

Despite spending £2million of taxpayer money buying land and drawing up plans for a new Centre for Justice at Farringdon Row, the government has yet to take a final decision on the project. 

Instead, the MoJ informed Ms Phillipson and Ms Elliott in December 2017 that the HM Courts & Tribunals Service Property Board had approved a proposal to integrate Sunderland County Court into the Sunderland Magistrates’ Court.

According to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Ms Philipson in January, this proposal was not subject to public consultation since it did not require the transfer of work outside of the local area. 

Another Parliamentary Questions tabled by Ms Phillipson revealed that the cost of upgrading the existing Magistrates’ Court to accommodate tribunal, family and criminal court proceedings would be approximately  £284,000.

This work is expected to be completed by May 2018, at which point all courts proceedings in Sunderland will take place within a building that is over one hundred years old and no longer fit for purpose. 

Speaking after today’s Justice Questions, Bridget Phillipson MP said: 

“Today in the Commons I raised the future of the Sunderland Courts estate for what felt like the umpteenth time. 

“Despite spending £2 million on land and plans for a new state-of-the-art Centre for Justice, six successive Courts Ministers have dodged a decision on this project over the last eight years. 

“As a result of this dithering, the Ministry of Justice has now been forced to spend a further £284,000 on carrying out urgent repairs to the dilapidated Sunderland Magistrates’ Court. 

“This is simply not good enough for victims or their families, which is why I urged the new Courts Minister today to put an end to this saga once and for all by giving the people of Sunderland a decision on the way forward. 

“I welcome her commitment to set out a timetable for the redevelopment of the court estate, but after eight long years of dither and delay my colleague Julie Elliott will not let this matter rest.”

Julie Elliott MP said: 

“Today’s announcement is welcome but we have been here before with this Tory government. 

“In November 2016 the then Courts Minister promised a decision on the rebuild by the end of March 2017, yet in the end everything was kicked into the long grass. 

“Instead of getting on with the construction of the modern courts facility we were promised, the Ministry of Justice then decided to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on urgent repairs to our 110-year old magistrates’ court. 

“This additional spending could have been avoided if ministers had taken a decision on the proposals for a new Centre of Justice when we first raised this issue eight years ago. 

“It’s high time that the government made a decision before there is any further cost to the public purse. 

“Constituents should be assured that Bridget and I will hold ministers to their promises until the spades are in the ground.”