The criminal justice system in Cambridge is "on its knees", according to a passionate speech by a serving solicitor.
Jacqui Appleton, a partner and solicitor at Shelley & Co in Cambridge, made the speech in open court after a clients trial she was defending was adjourned for a further six months – a delay of almost a year since the defendants first appearance.
Her speech, given yesterday (Wednesday, April 25) comes after proposals were announced in January to close Cambridge Magistrates Court.
Ms Appleton said the delays in local justice are "scandalous", and defendants and victims alike are suffering daily injustices as a result.
She said her client's trial was one of six trials listed at one courtroom in one day – yet the reasoning behind the proposals to close the citys court was that there was insufficient work to justify it staying open.
Ms Appleton claimed that in Norfolk and Suffolk, the time between a defendants first hearing and trial is six to eight weeks – but here in Cambridge its six to nine months.
Why is the court at risk of closure?
The court, which opened in St Andrews Street in 2008, is where criminal trials begin and defendants are given their first hearings.
It also deals with a multitude of minor offences and forms the frontline for the justice system.
Under the proposals, announced by the Ministry of Justice, the court building would be sold to generate funds and cases would be heard in Peterborough and Huntingdon.
Concerns have, however, been raised about the impact on defendants and people's access to justice.
In the dock
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner has called it “a disgrace of a proposal.”
People from Cambridge trying to attend magistrates' court could face a 36-mile round trip to Huntingdon – or a 76-mile round trip to Peterborough.
'The delay in cases is breathtaking – justice delayed is justice denied'
Speaking at Cambridge Magistrates Court on Wednesday, Ms Appleton said: “My client appeared on November 6, 2017 for a first hearing facing two charges of assault.
“His trial was fixed for today (April 25). That is a 24-week delay, near on six months.
“Today, as a result of a lack of court time, his trial will be adjourned for a further six months.
“The delay in cases of this court is breathtaking. This [trial] court sits one day a week and there are routinely case delays.
“In years gone by we were all accustomed with the ever-repeated phrase that summary justice should be speedy justice in the lower courts.
“Thats not the case anymore – and certainly here at Cambridge Magistrates Court.
“Summary trials are definitely not speedy justice. Justice delayed is justice denied, not just for defendants but for witnesses and victims alike.”
Ms Appleton said her client suffered from a severe brain injury after a road crash in 2008 – and had spent the last 24 weeks unable to sleep due to feeling anxious about his trial.
She said a further delay to his case would be detrimental to his health – but was told the earliest the court could re-list his trial for would be in November.
Ms Appleton was advised that she could list her case before a district judge on May 15, which she accepted.
'A stark contrast between first hearings and trial dates'
Continuing her speech, Mrs Appleton added: “There are five trials listed in this court today (Wednesday) – thats over 14 hours of cases to be heard in just a six hour slot.
“Three of these trials have been adjourned; my trial will be the fourth to be adjourned.
“Yet what we have are proposals to close this court – one of the reasons being that there is a lack of work in this city to justify keeping this court open.
“In Norfolk and Suffolk, the time between the first hearing and trial is six to eight weeks. Here in Cambridge, its six to nine months – and then possibly a further delay of another six months after that.
“The demand is such that Huntingdon is being used as an overflow for Cambridge cases in regards to general crime offences.
“The last time I had a trial at Huntingdon Magistrates Court, there were 21 trials listed [in one day].
“The legal advisor spent from 10am until 1pm adjourning 20 of those trials. My trial, effective, lasted the entire afternoon.”
Ms Appleton was stopped from giving the last part of her speech in open court, but she later gave a copy to the News.
It reads: “Everyone who works within this system – including legal advisors, prosecutors, the CPS, police, defence lawyers, ushers, magistrates…are all equally hard working and doing our utmost.
“But the criminal justice system is on its knees. Here in Cambridge it is collapsing around us and the powers that be are nowhere to be seen.
“They have no idea whats happening on the ground.
“The delays are scandalous, and defendants and victims alike are suffering daily injustices as a result."
'Magistrates are fully with you on this matter'
After Ms Appletons speech, chair of the bench David Bredin asked for a copy – adding that he was going to give it to his MP.
He said: “I would be grateful for a copy of your impassioned speech; you will no doubt be fully aware that the magistrates are entirely with you on this matter.
“My MP is Lucy Frazer…who failed to have an interview with me before the closure of the consultation period on this matter.”
Ms Appleton was also supported in her speech by prosecutor Margaret Morrissey, who urged Mr Bredin to take a copy of a whistleblowing book on the state of the UKs legal system to his MP.
She said: “If youre going to see your MP, whoever that may be, you should take a book called The Secret Barristerto them.
“That book has been purchased by all of us in this court room today and copies are being sent to every MP on this land.”
The book, written by an anonymous serving barrister, details the pressures and strains currently facing the British legal system.
Ms Appletons speech also comes the day after the MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, once again spoke in parliament regarding the court closure.
Addressing ministers, he said: “Access to courts with people with disabilities will not be improved by closing courts.
“In response to a recent written question from myself, it turns out that no minister this year has visited any of the courts that are due for closure at the moment.
“Could I implore the minsters to come to Cambridge and talk to people with disabilities, to see the impact of their plans?”
None of the Justice Ministers who want to close Cambridge Magistrates' Court have visited it! When I put this to Minister Lucy Frazer today she still did not commit to coming to visit… pic.twitter.com/9PqJxrgBGv
— Daniel Zeichner (@DanielZeichner) April 24, 2018
Lucy Frazer, who has been the MP for South East Cambridgeshire since the 2015 general election and is also Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, replied: “Im always regularly happy to meet with people who use the court service around the country.
“We are improving access in a number of ways by ensuring that not only do we have court buildings, but we also have disabled people very much taking advantage of the ability to give evidence by video link – not having to go to court at all.”
What the government says
Following Ms Appleton's speech a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told the News: “This government is investing over £1 billion to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use, and providing better value for the taxpayer.
“Since April 2016 we have raised £115 million from the sale of underused court buildings – over £34m more than forecast, and every penny of this will be reinvested as part of our modernisation plans.
“As we increase the use of digital services, it makes sense to consider the wider role and need for court buildings and assess whether some are still necessary to provide effective access to justice.”
The consultation to close Cambridge Magistrates Court ended on March 29, 2018.
No update has yet been given as to its future.