Expressing concerns about Cambridge Magistrates’ Court

Response to the consultation on the future of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court

Click here to see original letter

I write in order to respond to the consultation on the future of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court.

Prior to making this submission, I made a number of enquiries of the Ministry of Justice because I felt the consultation lacked important information about how my constituents would be affected by the proposal to close the Magistrates’ Court and to relocate some of its work outside of Cambridge.

I have sent/received the following letters:

a) Letter to the Minister, Lucy Frazer QC, MP dated 6th February 2018

b) Letter from David Gauke, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice dated 8th March 2018.

c) Freedom of Information Act response from the Ministry of Justice dated 16th March 2018.

Copies of the above documents are attached to this letter. In addition to obtaining the above information, I have listened to the views of my constituents about access to justice and considered representations made by other parties, including the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the Police and Crime Commissioner’s letter of the 19th March 2018 in which he outlines his concerns and offers a proposal to engage in strategic and collaborative partnership working to address the issues set out in the consultation.

My letter to the Minister of 6th February outlined a number of important issues where I felt there was inadequate information provided in the consultation. Unfortunately, much of the information I received from the Ministry of Justice has been incomplete or unavailable.

On the basis of the information provided to date, I am not convinced that the proposal to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court is the right decision for South Cambridgeshire. It is clear from the consultation that the Court is under-utilised, that technological advances mean the way justice is administered is changing and there is a need to save cost. However, I am afraid that some of the critical Information provided by the Ministry is lacking. I believe there should now be further strategic work across all organisations involved in the administration of local justice and that constituents should have an opportunity to review the situation with the benefit of more detailed information.

My principal concerns are as follows:

1) Retention of non-custodial cases in Cambridge. The consultation proposed that non-custodial cases would remain in Cambridge but be heard at Cambridge County Court instead of the Magistrates’ Court. Custodial cases would be transferred to either Peterborough or Huntingdon.

A number of Magistrates’ Court cases would therefore remain in Cambridge but the consultation does not contain any information about the likely proportion of cases which would be retained in Cambridge. This is crucial information which is, sadly, missing from the consultation.

I requested information from the Ministry of Justice and their response is outlined in the attached Freedom of Information response. However, the response is incomplete. The information confirms the division of custodial/non-custodial cases based on “the number of first hearings for a case where the defendant was in custody and where the defendant was not in custody”. Based on this definition, in 2016/7 481 out of 8033 (6%) cases were deemed as custodial.

However, the definition of a “custodial case” used by the Ministry of Justice for the purpose of the FOI response does not include cases where the defendant was in custody after the first hearing, for example, at the final hearing of a case where a sentence of imprisonment is being contemplated by the bench. The FOI information does not state clearly that the definition of a custodial case used for the purpose of the consultation is the same as for the FOI response.

It follows that more than 481 cases in 2016/7 would have required custodial facilities. It is welcome that non-custodial cases would remain in Cambridge but I remain very disappointed that information about the likely proportion of cases that would remain in Cambridge was not contained in the consultation and that my efforts to secure this information have so far resulted in only a partial response.

2) Retention of some custodial cases in Cambridge. The consultation confirms that custodial cases would be transferred to Huntingdon Law Courts or Peterborough Magistrates’ Court “with some consideration also given to hearing some cases in Cambridge Crown Court”. I therefore sought clarity on the approximate number of cases which might be retained in Cambridge but heard at Cambridge Crown Court instead of the Magistrates’ Court and the criteria for considering which cases would be appropriate to be heard at the Crown Court.

Although it is concerning that the consultation did not confirm more precise information about how these cases would be allocated, the Lord Chancellor’s letter contains a welcome re-commitment to retaining some of the custodial work in Cambridge. The response confirms that there will be further assessment of this and that the criteria will be informed by the consultation responses. I hope that this process will enable the Ministry of Justice to provide specific information about the number of custodial cases which would remain in Cambridge, the criteria for considering the allocation of cases and also that this work can be accommodated at the Crown Court without compromising the effectiveness of the Crown Court’s work.

3) The transfer of custodial cases to Huntingdon. The consultation proposed that custodial cases would be heard in Huntingdon “except where this would present a significant distance for users to travel, at which point work would be listed at Peterborough Magistrates’ Court. A review would be undertaken to establish which location is more accessible to users from different areas”.

I sought more information about the precise criteria which would be used for considering how to allocate cases between Huntingdon and Peterborough. This is an issue of importance to my constituents. South Cambridgeshire is a large, rural constituency and the references to a “significant distance” and a further review appeared too vague to provide comfort to constituents about how the allocation of cases would be managed.

The Lord Chancellor has confirmed that there would be a “judicially-led listing review” and a “public consultation” before any changes were made. It is welcome that these issues will be given further consideration and that my constituents would have another opportunity to comment but any further review and consultation must address the above concerns. The current consultation therefore cannot precede the availability of this knowledge.

4) Cost and appropriateness of using the Cambridge County Court for Magistrates’ Court work.

The consultation confirmed that “up to” four additional court rooms would be made available at the County Court to accommodate the Magistrates’ Court non-custodial work. I therefore requested information from the Ministry of Justice about the cost of the work and whether this would require building work and/or the rationalisation of space.

The Lord Chancellor’s letter states that “based on previous experience, we would expect this to be in range of £1-4 million”. The annual operating cost of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court was £580,000 in 2016/7.

The estimated cost falls within a wide range and it remains unclear what the costs of the additional work and running costs at the County Court would be, let alone the fact that the suggested cost would be significantly higher than the current Magistrates’ cost.

5) Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable court users. Although the consultation confirms that any future arrangements for the listing of cases would take into account the needs of the vulnerable, I requested information from the Ministry of Justice about their specific plans to ensure that they could deliver this commitment to vulnerable court users. It is clear that there will continue to be some cases heard in Cambridge but I remain concerned about exactly what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that the needs of vulnerable court users will be given the priority they deserve.

I would urge the Ministry of Justice to carefully consider the above issues and lack of analysis which I have highlighted on behalf of my constituents.

Following the closure of the consultation, the Ministry of Justice will have an opportunity to address these concerns when it confirms its final plans in respect of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. If it decides to continue with the proposal to close Cambridge Magistrates’ Court it must come forward with much more detailed information about the issues I have outlined.

It is troubling that the Ministry of Justice has not provided more information about specific and vital parts of its plans and I believe the consultation has been a missed opportunity to explain the plans with clarity. Their failure to provide more robust information to date has resulted in a consultation which is incomplete and I would encourage the Ministry of Justice to bring forward more detailed and comprehensive information, to work collaboratively with stakeholders on finding solutions and to provide re-assurance to my constituents about the above concerns.

Yours sincerely

Heidi Allen
MP for South Cambridgeshire