Minister invited to visit Sunderland's dilapidated courthouse as he's challenged to take action

Sunderland Magistrates' Court.
Sunderland Magistrates' Court.

A Government minister who oversees the justice system has been invited to see Sunderland's crumbling courthouse for himself.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, has challenged the Courts Minister Dominic Raab to explain to the people of Sunderland why the city’s dilapidated magistrates court is the best they should expect from the Tory Government.

Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson.

Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson.

During justice questions in the House of Commons, Ms Phillipson outlined the poor state of the existing buildings at Sunderland Magistrates' Court, and called upon the minister to visit the city to explain the government’s failure to replace them.

She has said the minister "dodged the request" and made no indication that work on a new courts estate would get the green light any time soon.

Ms Phillipson and her Labour colleague Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, have been campaigning for a new Sunderland Centre for Justice since Houghton Magistrates' Court was closed in 2011 on the understanding that a modern courts complex was to be built in the city.

After meeting with Mr Raab earlier this month, Ms Phillipson and Ms Elliott received a letter on October 21, in which the minister confirmed that no decision had been taken on whether to incorporate a court estate into the proposed Public Sector Hub on the new Vaux site.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott.

The minister instead indicated that HM Courts & Tribunals Service will commence work to refurbish the existing court buildings in an attempt to bring them up to modern security, safety and accessibility standards.

Ms Phillipson has said this means more money will be spent on a building that is over one hundred years old, has very poor accessibility, and is constructed in a way that means plaintiffs have to walk past defendants on the way into the courtroom.

To date £2 million of taxpayer money has already been spent buying land and drawing up plans, with this latest delay likely to incur further costs to the public purse.

Ms Phillipson said: “After seven years of dither and delay over the future of the crumbling Sunderland Magistrates' Court, today I asked the courts minister to explain to the people of Sunderland why they don’t deserve better from the Ministry of Justice.

“It’s simply not right that local people have to rely on a court that is over a century old, has very poor accessibility, and is inadequate for both victims and staff alike.

“Dominic Raab is the fifth minister with whom I have raised this issue in seven years.

"Like his predecessors, he has dodged every opportunity to demonstrate that the government is serious about building a new Centre for Justice in our city.

“In fact, the letter he sent to my colleague Julie Elliott and I last week suggests that this project has been ditched altogether, even though millions have already been spent on plans for the site.

“I know local people will be disappointed with this news, but I want to assure them that we will not give up and will keep fighting for a courts complex fit for the twenty-first century.”

Ms Elliott added: “Bridget and I have been campaigning for a new court in Sunderland for the last seven years, but we have been thwarted at every turn by a government that clearly doesn’t care about improving access to justice in our city.

“It simply beggars belief that the current courts minister wants to waste more money on patching up the existing court buildings rather than starting work on a new purpose-built Centre for Justice.

“The government has already wasted millions on drawing up plans and buying land for that purpose.

"After years of ducking our questions over the future of the site, it now seems to be abandoning that option altogether.

“The people of Sunderland deserve better than this, which is why I echo Bridget’s call for the minister to come to our city and explain the government’s failure in person.

“I am very disappointed that the minister declined the offer and made no indication that Sunderland will ever get the new court buildings we were promised.

“It’s just another example of how this Tory government is failing our city and the wider region.”