Sadness as Cromer courthouse closure looms
A long-serving former magistrate has spoken of her sadness as the days tick by to the closure of Cromer magistrates court.
March 31 is the end of an era for criminal justice as the last of the region's smaller magistrates courts – Cromer, Swaffham, Thetford and Wisbech – close their doors for good. They are among 140 courts which will close nationwide.
The Ministry of Justice said the courts had been in decline for years, only sitting two or three days each week. The operating costs of these four courts amount to more than �350,000 annually and most are in need of expensive renovation.
But there is still concern about the demise of local justice, and the prospect of witnesses, families and defendants having to travel to Norwich or Great Yarmouth for cases.
North Norfolk district councillor Sue Arnold spent 25 years sitting as a magistrate in Cromer before stepping down three years ago.
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She said: 'This is a sign of the times but it is very sad. I can remember when we had courts in Holt, Wells and even Walsingham.
'Of course magistrates in Norwich and their expert advisors will still be able to dispense justice. But there is no doubt you will lose local knowledge and the sense that the community is playing an active role.'
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She added: 'Witnesses, victims and defendants are often vulnerable people with limited means. It may not be too bad for somebody to travel from Cromer to Norwich, but if you live in a village it becomes much harder.
'I know people may not have much sympathy for defendants but you have to remember everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
'I'm no soft touch but after so many years I developed an empathy for defendants and can see their perspective.'
The latest round of closures follows others in recent years, with courts in Fakenham, Diss, North Walsham, Wymondham, Hunstanton, and Downham Market becoming part of local history.
Even some villages have, in living memory, had their own courts: until 1971 a 16th century building in Walsingham, now the Shirehall museum, served as a magistrates court. Nowadays the courtroom is used for hands-on demonstrations of the law in action.
From April, all court hearings in Norfolk will take place in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn.
There are 397 magistrates in Norfolk. Some are set to retire; others will transfer to their nearest remaining court. But the close connection between JPs and their communities will be diluted.
The closures will also mean key buildings, often in central locations, will fall vacant at a time when many fear for the vibrancy of town centres.
Mrs Arnold said: 'In Cromer the old police station already looks neglected and there are a number of boarded-up shops. It is not good for the community, particularly in a town with a holiday trade.
'This decision means mothballing a building with a very distinct atmosphere and it will be very sad to see it fall vacant.
'It is in a prime position on Holt Road as you come into town so it would be good to see it put to some positive use, possibly as a community centre or special needs school.'
Cromer town councillor Hilary Thompson said: 'I would like to think the building could be used for something for the community, something for the youth of the town, maybe a drop-in centre or a community centre.'
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