The decision to close Cambridge Magistrate’s Court was challenged in the House of Commons today by Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner. Mr Zeichner asked the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP “why is he rushing to close courts, like the court in Cambridge” before a thorough debate has been concluded around the alternative ways in which people will get access to the justice system.
The question by Mr Zeichner was raised in relation to recent proposals by the Ministry of Justice to increase the use of virtual courts as part of a modernisation process that will see the closure of court sites, including Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. He urged the Government to look closely at a report from the Justice Select Committee published last week, which raised doubts about the new technologies being used to create so-called ‘virtual courts’, and urging caution in proceeding.
In the House of Commons Mr Zeichner said; “Last week the Justice Committee produced an excellent report highlighting some of the issues around the use of virtual Courts, they raised some very important issues. Why is he rushing to close courts, like the court in Cambridge, when we are yet to have that wider discussion around virtual courts?”
The response from Mr Gauke avoided any reference to the closing of the Magistrates’ Court in Cambridge, which has seen local opposition from Mr Zeichner, legal experts and Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, but stated; “It is important we make progress using the court estates as sensibly as possible, they are under used. It does make sense that when resources are scarce we use them more efficiently.”
The report by the Justice Select Committee last week, and an open letter from Bob Neil MP (chairman of the Justice Select Committee) to Minister for Justice, Lucy Frazer MP, raised a number of issues relating to the proposals, and specifically virtual courts. One of the concerns raised by the committee was whether the use of virtual courts over traditional court based justice is currently suitable given the current lack of digital infrastructure and evidence to justify the move. The Committee has also said that those using Magistrates’ Court should live within an hour’s travel time of the court, which would not be the case for Cambridge residents travelling to Peterborough as per the Ministry of Justice’s proposals.
Mr Zeichner urges Secretary of State David Gauke not make a decision until the issue of virtual courts had been properly discussed: “The closure of Cambridge Magistrate’s Court has no local support, and the alternatives are based on assumptions that have been called into question by the Justice Select Committee. In light of that advice, the Government should cancel the closure of Cambridge Magistrate’s Court now.”