University of Cambridge legal experts condemn Cambridge Magistrates’ Court closure plan

PUBLISHED: 21:20 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 01:01 23 February 2018

Cambridge Magistrates' Court could be sold off under Ministry of Justice proposals

Cambridge Magistrates' Court could be sold off under Ministry of Justice proposals

Iliffe Media Ltd

Letter calls Ministry of Justice proposal to switch cases to Huntingdon and Peterborough ‘short-sighted’

The consultation was made by South East Cambridgeshire Tory MP Lucy Frazer, who is now the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justiceThe consultation was made by South East Cambridgeshire Tory MP Lucy Frazer, who is now the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice

There is mounting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to abandon its proposals to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

A letter accusing the government of short-sightedness was signed by 39 academics connected to the Law Faculty of the University of Cambridge this week and was shared with the Cambridge Independent.

It comes after the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on January 18 that outlined plans to relocate criminal cases to Huntingdon and Peterborough. Selling the building would provide funding to reform court and tribunal services, it claimed.

But in their letter – sent by Nicola Padfield, master of Fitzwilliam College and professor of criminal and penal justice at the University of Cambridge – the academics said: “Cambridge is a city of 125,000 and growing fast. It has plenty of crime, too. Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, brand new in 2008, is conveniently situated in the middle of the city, right next to the bus station and other central bus stops, and only a short walk from the train station. It was built for the purpose. Now the government plans to distribute its work between Cambridge County Court, Huntingdon Law Courts, Peterborough Magistrates’ Court and Cambridge Crown Court.

“The only reason is the ‘economic argument’ that the court can be sold ‘maximising sale receipts from disposals’. 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. Nor, more prosaically, any evaluation of the relative ease with which the local population (including witnesses and defendants), court staff and lawyers can reach Cambridge, as compared to Huntingdon and Peterborough. Requiring all parties to travel further will doubtless add to delays.”

The consultation – one of five nationwide proposing the closure of eight courts – was announced by South East Cambridgeshire Tory MP Lucy Frazer, the recently-appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice.

The academics said: “Perhaps the government might consider amalgamating Cambridge Magistrates’ with Cambridge County Court, or the Crown court. But no – most of the work will be transferred to Peterborough or Huntingdon (to where the public transport links are considerably worse than the consultation suggests, which will contribute to stress, delay and the loss of any sense of “local” justice).

“It is poor reflection on our times that the government does not seek to explore why a city such as Cambridge should value its local justice system, and why a local court plays an important role in civil society. This is just one of very many short-sighted closures. We urge the Minister of Justice to take his responsibilities very seriously.”

Cambridge Magistrates' Court is 'under-used', according to the Ministry of JusticeCambridge Magistrates' Court is 'under-used', according to the Ministry of Justice

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner and the police and crime commissioner, Jason Ablewhite, have both expressed concern.

An HM Courts & Tribunals Service spokesperson told the Cambridge Independent: “Cambridge Magistrates’ Court is significantly underused – in 2016/17 it sat for less than a third of its available hours.

“If the courts were to close, all civil and family cases would move to Cambridge County Court, which is a 15 minute walk from the Magistrates’ Court. Cambridge Crown Court, Huntingdon Law Courts, and Peterborough Magistrates’ Court would be considered for custodial magistrates’ court cases workload.

“However, no decisions have been taken. This is a consultation and we want to hear peoples’ views before making any decisions.”

Visit the Ministry of Justice’s consultation website to respond.

The letter in full

Dear Madam/Sir,

Closure of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court

We write, each in our private capacity, but as people closely connected to the Law Faculty of the University of Cambridge, to challenge the assumption of the Government’s so-called consultation, published on 18 January, on the closure of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

Cambridge is a city of 125,000 and growing fast. It has plenty of crime, too (even if much of it is invisible, often dealt with out of court, or outside the criminal justice system). Cambridge Magistrates Court, brand new in 2008, is conveniently situated in the middle of the city, right next to the bus station and other central bus stops, and only a short walk from the train station. It was built for the purpose. Now the Government plans to distribute its work between Cambridge County Court, Huntingdon Law Courts, Peterborough Magistrates’ Court and Cambridge Crown Court.

Why? The only reason is the “economic argument” that the court can be sold “maximising sale receipts from disposals”. 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. Nor, more prosaically, any evaluation of the relative ease with which the local population (including witnesses and defendants), court staff and lawyers can reach Cambridge, as compared to Huntingdon and Peterborough. Requiring all parties to travel further will doubtless add to delays.

According to the Chief Executive, HM Courts & Tribunal Service, “we have many courts and tribunals in places where no thoughtful planner would put them if designing the system now. Having many more ways to access justice without travel, and having fewer, better buildings, that are well-located and well-connected, welcoming, easy to use, and in good condition, will both give us a better justice system, and release resources to make it sustainable” .

Most “thoughtful planners” would put Cambridge Magistrates’ Court exactly where it is, in the centre of a buzzing city, well served by public transport. Perhaps the Government might consider amalgamating Cambridge Magistrates with Cambridge County Court, or the Crown Court (all of which are recent and separate new buildings). But no – most of the work will be transferred to Peterborough or Huntingdon (to where the public transport links are considerably worse than the consultation suggests, which will contribute to stress, delay and the loss of any sense of “local” justice).

It is poor reflection on our times that the Government does not seek to explore why a city such as Cambridge should value its local justice system, and why a local court plays an important role in civil society. This is just one of very many short-sighted closures. We urge the Minister of Justice to take his responsibilities very seriously.

Yours faithfully

• Ms Thury Agustdottir

• Mr Dan Bates

• Professor Sir John Baker

• Dr Lorand Bartels

• Professor John Bell

• Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms

• Ms Lucinda Bowditch

• Dr Elizabeth Burney

• Dr Paolo Campana

• Dr Jane Dominey

• Dr Matt Dyson

• Professor David Feldman

• Professor Christopher Forsyth

• Mrs Jodi Gardner

• Professor Christine Gray

• Dr Adrian Grounds

• Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe

• Mr Tom Hawker

• Mr Richard Hooley

• Dr Caroline Lanskey

• Professor Alison Liebling

• Dr Amy Ludlow

• Mr Henry Mares

• Mr Nicholas McBride

• Mr Jack Merritt

• Dr Jonathan Morgan

• Ms Jo Miles

• Dr Peter Neyroud

• Professor Nicola Padfield

• Mr Michael Pritchard

• Dr Michael Rice

• Dr Jens Scherpe

• Dr Anna Schliehe

• Professor John Spencer

• Dr Findlay Stark

• Dr Felix Steffek

• Mr Stuart Stone

• Dr Justice Tankebe

• Dr Michael Waibel

The Ministry of Justice’s answers to some key questions

How much is the court used?

“Cambridge Magistrates’ Court is significantly underused and moving the work to other courts would allow for a more streamlined and efficient service, as well as reducing running costs. During the 2016/17 financial year, Cambridge Magistrates’ Court sat for a total of 2,376 hours out of a possible 7,620 available hours.

At the three proposed receiving sites, during the 2016/17 financial year, the total sitting hours were as follows:

• Cambridge County Court sat for 6,036 hours out of a possible 11,430 available hours.

• Huntingdon Law Courts sat for 3,350 hours out of a possible 6,350 available hours.

• Peterborough Magistrates’ Court sat for 3,138 hours out of a possible 7,620 available hours.

• Cambridge Crown Court sat for 3,029 hours out of a possible 3,810 available hours.”

Will the alternatives mentioned in the letter - such as merger with the Crown or County Courts in Cambridge - will be considered as part of the review?

“Yes. We will consider very carefully all responses to the consultation before making any final decisions regarding the court. This will include suggestions regarding reconfiguration of the remaining court buildings within Cambridge.”

What courts would the work go to?

“The workload of the court proposed for closure would be distributed to a combination of Cambridge County Court, Huntingdon Law Courts, Peterborough Magistrates’ Court, and Cambridge Crown Court.

Cambridge County Court would receive non-custodial work from Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, with the other three sites being considered for custodial magistrates’ court cases workload. Subject to the addition of up to four courtrooms in Cambridge County Court, sufficient capacity exists across the Cambridgeshire estate to accommodate the workload of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

The reallocation of workload from Cambridge Magistrates’ Court to other buildings in Cambridgeshire would enable savings to the cost of our overall estate and help to achieve better value for money for taxpayers. Provision will remain for court users residing in the vicinity of Cambridge to attend hearings in the city.

When considering responses to this consultation and making decisions regarding the future of this court, Ministers will consider whether effective access to justice can be maintained, whether the closure offers value for money and whether it would enable the long-term efficiency of the court service.”

The Police and Crime Commissioner has also expressed alarm at this proposal - will the view of those on the frontline of the criminal justice system also be considered?

“We encourage anyone with views on our proposals to respond to the consultation.”

comments powered by Disqus

More news stories

Live Traffic Map

Most read stories

Image alt text goes here

Find the perfect role for you – or advertise a vacancy

Find out more

Image alt text goes here

Search for your next home – and read our sparkling content

Find out more

Image alt text goes here

Share your news, pictures and videos with us

Find out more