My motion to Cambridgeshire County Council yesterday asked the council to write to the Justice Minister (and SE Cambs MP) Lucy Frazer, opposing her department’s proposals to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. Unfortunately, Cambridgeshire Conservatives didn’t agree, so it was defeated. This is what I said.
“The proposal to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, launched by South East Cambridgeshire MP and Justice Minister Lucy Frazer on behalf of the Government, has attracted opposition from many sections of the community, and for a wide variety of reasons.
Lawyers, court staff, academics, the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, even the Cambridge News court reporter, have voiced their criticisms of the plan.
The Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire and the Police & Crime Commissioner have gone so far as to express concerns.
The reasons given have been financial, practical, and arguments of principle.
The Cambridge Magistrates’ Court cost over £18M to build only ten years ago. It is well situated next to Cambridge’s bus interchange and to a large number of other amenities.
Along with Peterborough and Huntingdon, it is what remains of a formerly much wider network of local justice which included magistrates’ courts in Ely and Wisbech, both closed in a previous round of 93 court closures in 2011.
At the time, residents in East Cambridgeshire were told that despite the closure of the Ely court, they could access local justice not significantly further away in Cambridge. Instead, justice slips further and further out of reach with each decade.
It is argued that the court in Cambridge is under-used. But the Police & Crime Commissioner tells us that there is a backlog of cases with lists now stretching into the summer.
It is argued that the closure of the court will save money. But staff have warned of the potential for increased time and cost to the public purse in transporting people in custody to and fro across the county.
And there is of course the personal cost to defendants, witnesses and others who will now have to travel, mostly to Huntingdon, for custodial cases.
It is true, as the proposal document says, that for some people this will be a shorter journey. But for many it will not. The document paints a rosy picture of public transport to Huntingdon that is not mirrored by many residents’ experience. It relies heavily on reference to the guided bus, which does not touch many of our local communities.
Public transport can be expensive, inconvenient and stressful. It has even been pointed out that witnesses and court staff could end up on the same infrequent bus as the defendant, with the risk of intimidation.
Delays, adjournments and rescheduling in court rooms will cause real difficulties to defendants and witnesses reliant on the vagaries of an expensive bus network. And this could lead to an increase in non-attendance – a significant cost to the legal system as well as the exact opposite of the efficiency the Minister says she wants.
Finally, the academics to whom I referred earlier, 39 legal experts, have pointed out that there is ‘no discussion whatsoever of the importance of strengthening communities, of the value and effectiveness of local justice to ensuring the legitimacy of the criminal process. No attempt to measure transparency, fairness, and efficiency.’
These are important matters, at the heart of the operation of local justice. They should concern us, as elected representatives of the people of Cambridgeshire. I am therefore asking the Leader to write to the Minister setting out this council’s objections.”