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Court closures – are they selling the family silver?

Penelope Gibbs
10 Mar 2018

If making a tidy sum from the sale of every court were the aim of the court closure programme, it doesn’t seem to be going very well. A parliamentary question elicited the sale price of courts sold since 2010. More than 100 of them were sold for for less than £500,000 each – the price of many a terraced house. Given that most courthouses are much bigger than the average terraced house, and are in city centre locations, these prices seem very low and makes one wonder whether it was worth it.

MPs not normally engaged in the courts, have recently begun to complain – about past as well as future closures. Mary Creagh pointed out that Wakefield Crown Court, which was closed twenty years ago, had been “left to fall into ruins, leaving my local authority and local council tax payers to foot the bill”. Helen Hayes protested about the closure of Lambeth County Court: “my constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing”.

I wonder if the courts service has developed a different sales strategy in relation to the eight courts now on the slate for closure. Blackfriars Crown Court is well used, so selling it must be due to the value of the site. Given that it is pretty full every day, London lawyers are sceptical that its’ cases can fit into the crown court nearby. We’ll see.

Court closures don’t normally prompt much public protest. Unfortunately, courts are not seen as a community asset and most local residents don’t even know if their local court has an axe hanging over it. But Cambridge bucks the trend. Partly because it is home to a powerful set of academic lawyers and criminologists, partly because the issue is live in local media, the idea of closing Cambridge magistrates’ court is not going down well. The government proposal is either that the court is closed altogether and all cases moved to Peterborough or Huntingdon, or that “spare” capacity in the county court should be used for criminal cases.

Academics (39 of whom have written an open letter) are opposed to the closure of Cambridge magistrates’: “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.”

Leanne Robinson, who works for Transform Justice, went to Cambridge magistrates’ court this week to ask users and staff what they thought of the idea of closing it. It took her 40 more minutes to drive there than the time estimate in the government consultation on the court’s closure. Closure was roundly rejected for several reasons

  • The facilities (for disabled people, those in custody and those who need special measures) in Cambridge magistrates’ court are far superior to the alternatives.
  • It will take much longer to get to the other courts. One defendant had taken forty minutes to get from Grantchester and “it would have taken me a silly amount of time to get to Peterborough”. The mother of a teenage defendant had taken an hour and fifteen minutes from a village outside Cambridge. It would have taken them two hours to get to Peterborough. A disabled defendant said she lived nearer Huntingdon, but Cambridge was actually easier to get to and “if my case had been in Peterborough, I just wouldn’t have been able to get there. I’d have absconded”.
  • Court staff were concerned that closure of the court would lead to an increase in the number of defendants and witnesses not turning up. Already an increasing number of people are “failing to appear”. But the closure will “force more FTAs, so more arrest warrants putting more people into our full prisons”. (Unpublished research on court closures in Suffolk has found that the number of people missing court dates increased significantly in those areas where a court had been closed).
  • But staff also felt that it was just wrong that Cambridge should lose its magistrates’ court “Cambridge is a small city that is being projected to be a big city in the future, with a growing population and proposals to extend it. A key feature of any city is the court. Closing this court would leave a big hole in the heart of Cambridge”.

The users and staff felt Cambridge mags had been identified for sale not because it was the right court to close, but because the lease was the easiest to relinquish. They said Cambridge was in fact the least expensive (of the three in the area) to run – it costs £520,000 a year in running costs while Huntingdon costs £1,947,000. They claimed that work had already been moved to Huntingdon and Peterborough in order to justify the closure of Cambridge and that there was no way Cambridge County court would be able to take criminal cases since it was “rammed”.

Putting a spotlight on one court earmarked for closure raises questions about the whole process – about the estimates used for travel time to other courts and the reasons for closing particular courts.

In their “fit for the future” strategy consultation document HMCTS propose that witnesses and defendants who can’t or don’t want to get to court will be able to skype in to their court hearings. This was not an option favoured by the Cambridge court users: “I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously if I were on my phone or laptop. I don’t like being here, but at least it’s formal, you know? I take what’s happened real serious now”; “this wouldn’t work for me at all you see, because people like me, people in my circle, we don’t have internet, or a laptop or video phone, so I wouldn’t be able to”; “I wouldn’t be thinking I was in court – I’d be thinking about coronation street, or the dog”.

I feel sorry for the courts service. They are under pressure to save money. But by shaving a little off the £30 million + they are spending on management consultants, I think they could easily afford to save Cambridge magistrates’ court and save court users from having to use video.