Heart is ripped out of our justice system says MP as leaders react over magistrates court review

MBTC-23-04-13-Bedford Magistrates' Court. St Paul's Square, Bedford. ENGPNL00120130423164931
MBTC-23-04-13-Bedford Magistrates' Court. St Paul's Square, Bedford. ENGPNL00120130423164931

A review which supports the moving of magistrates hearings from Bedford to Luton has angered leading figures who have campaigned to keep cases in town.

Bedford and Kempston MP Richard Fuller and Mayor Dave Hodgson reacted angrily to a letter from the Judicial Business Group (JBG) for Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire which says the move is working well.

Both politicians, along with many campaigners from across the county, have argued criminal hearings should be heard in Bedford Shire Hall in the interests of local justice and to cause less disruption to all involved in hearings.

However, the JBG, which is made up of legal professionals, maintains listing cases at Luton Court provides a “good balance between accessibility, timeliness and effectiveness of hearings”.

Mr Fuller said: “I am extremely disappointed that the professionals in the judiciary have ignored the wishes of local people in Bedford including MPs, the mayor and councillors from all political parties.

“What this decision shows is that the Courts Act, introduced under Mr Blair’s government, and which denies any rights to the people on decisions about court cases being heard locally, needs to change.”

He added: “It is ironic that in this 800th centenary year for Magna Carta, that a small group of unelected judiciary officials should have ripped the heart out of Bedford’s justice system. They should hang their heads in shame.”

Since June of last year, all Bedfordshire adult and youth crime, local authority civil, and crime and probation cases have been listed at Luton.

Shire Hall remains open, at a cost of about £1,000 per day, and hears family court cases.

A letter from JBG chairman Judge Marie Catterson dated January 15, explained various court users were invited to give feedback on the impact of cases being held in Luton.

She said: “In November 2014, I wrote, on behalf of the JBG, to invite feedback from court users on the impact of the listings arrangements in Bedford Magistrates courts implemented in June 2014.

“The JBG met on January 5 to review the listings arrangements and to determine the appropriate listings arrangements for the future.”

The letter noted there are concerns from the Criminal Justice Board that witnesses are experiencing an “increase in inconvenience, stress and anxiety levels”, while the Police Federation is concerned about additional travel for officers.

The JBG suggests these can be addressed by increasing the usage of a “live link” facility where people can give evidence via a remote TV link from Bedford to Luton.

The letter also stated Central Bedfordshire Council recognised Luton Magistrates’ Court provided better facilities but it has experienced difficulties in getting hearings, there are delays in prosecuting cases and there are concerns over travel times for staff.

Bedford Borough Council added it is also concerned about the increasing number of educational welfare prosecutions in which defendants have child care commitments.

The JBG responded it will look into Bedford hosting a monthly sitting to accommodate council work.

Bedford mayor Dave Hodgson said: “This is extremely bad news for local justice. The views of local people, elected politicians and public bodies have been ignored.

“Access to justice for local communities has been badly damaged by this flawed decision.”

Mr Fuller added he will invite Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling to Bedford to hear “how strongly local people feel about this change”.

A spokesman for Central Beds Council said: “We have been aware of changes to the listing arrangements in Bedfordshire Magistrates’ Courts and have been working with the Judicial Business Group, who has asked for our feedback at various stages.

“We are happy to see the HM Courts and Tribunal Service will liaise with us about our proposals and welcome any studies into accommodating councils in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency in the process of prosecutions.

“We don’t, however, have a significant problem with non-attendance, but are making enquiries about accessing the live link facility so that we can consider offering this as appropriate to staff and witnesses.”