Sessions of the county court are now being held in the council chamber at Tunbridge Wells Town Hall on one day a week.
The ‘innovative’ way ‘to provide local justice’ is designed to address issues of access raised by the closure of the County and Family Court at Merevale House on London Road in January.
The borough council and HM Courts & Tribunals Service signed the agreement following a successful trial of the new arrangements in the latter months of 2016.
Until the move residents across the borough faced having to travel to Maidstone, Hastings or London to attend hearings.
Paul Barrington-King, the council’s Cabinet member with responsibility for finance and governance, said: “This is an innovative arrangement that benefits all involved through the use of the Town Hall.
“We have secured a service in our area, avoiding the need for people who may not have the means or time to travel a considerable distance to access a court.”
But a leading Tunbridge Wells law firm has criticised the plans. Kirstie Law, a partner at Thomson Snell & Passmore and a specialist in family law, said the move will not help the most vulnerable clients – especially those seeking emergency resolution.
“As far as I understand it, there will be one judge sitting on one day a week, where we used to have two or three judges five days a week,” she said. “People who work can’t just drop everything to make the time of the hearing.
“For people who have emergency cases, such as family issues or domestic violence, there are no judges sitting there able to slot them in where necessary, as used to be the case.
“And there isn’t going to be the support system to carry out paperwork straightaway if required. The judge is sitting in isolation in the council chamber.”
She believes the new arrangement will not eliminate the problem of needy families having to travel to distant alternative venues.
“It’s better than nothing – but nowhere near what we need,” she said. “This is all about access to justice.”
HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s Chief Executive, Susan Acland-Hood, said:
“Tunbridge Wells Town Hall is an excellent example of how existing local facilities can be used innovatively to provide local justice when there aren’t enough cases to fill a courtroom day in and day out.”
The old County and Family Court is due to be demolished if planning permission is passed to build a Premier Inn on the site.