Lucy Frazer reveals sale of five historic court buildings netted the Government less than £1m - was that enough?
- Credit: Archant
SE Cambs MP Lucy Frazer has revealed that five historic court buildings closed and sold off by the government raised less than £1 million.
The sales – including those at Ely and Wisbech – have prompted questions as to whether they were sold for enough.
Since 2010 a number of courts in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk have been shut, despite campaigns by communities to keep them open.
And more recently the Government has announced a consultation on closing the magistrates’ court in Cambridge.
Ms Frazer, who is also the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, revealed the sales figures in answer to a parliamentary question from shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon.
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A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “This government is investing over £1bn to reform and modernise the justice system – making it more convenient, easier to use and providing better value for the taxpayer.
“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.”
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Closures have left Norwich, King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth as the only towns in Norfolk with magistrates’ courts, with Suffolk’s only magistrates’ court being in Ipswich.
The figures showed that Swaffham and Thetford magistrates’ courts, both sold in 2013/14, brought in £155,000 and £231,550 respectively.
Wisbech Magistrates’ Court was also sold in that year for £151,350, while the sale of Mildenhall Magistrates’ Court in 2011/12 brought in £328,000.
Ely Magistrates’ Court was the cheapest of the lot - it was sold for the princely sum of just £1 following lengthy negotiations for the City of Ely Council to take over the 19th century building after it had been dormant for three years.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman pledged that: “Where physical courts are to close, every penny raised will be put back into funding changes which will make justice easier to access for all at the same time as offering protections for the most vulnerable.”
However Swaffham mayor Jill Skinner, who served as a magistrate for 26 years, said of the £155,000 made from Swaffham: “I’m not an estate agent but I think that amount seem incredibly cheap.
“It’s a really big place and it was purpose-built.
“When I first joined as a magistrate, it was mostly local justice but at the moment, I feel it’s going to be centralised because of the money situation.
“Do I think it’s better? No of course I don’t - justice seemed to be better when it was local but that’s the system and we have to go with it.”
One of the first jobs of Ms Frazer on becoming a minister was to announce the possible closure of Cambridge magistrates’ court.
The possible closure was revealed in a written update released on behalf of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service.
The consultation on closure of the Cambridge court – and seven others across the UK – will run until the end of March.
City council leader Lewis Herbert criticised the possible closure noting that “the then new 2008 Cambridge Magistrates Court cost us all over £18,000,000 when it was built less than ten years ago.
“Another reason not to close it, as well as the unfairness to people in the city, is the rising population nearby,”
He said the workload of the court proposed for closure would be distributed to a combination of Cambridge County Court, Huntingdon Law Courts, Peterborough Magistrates’ Court and Cambridge Crown Court.”
“If closure goes ahead, it depends on the detail,” he said.
Ms Frazer said: “While consideration of the demands on the courts and tribunals estate in the context of reform is important, we also need to assess the existing estate to make sure it is efficient and offers value for money to taxpayers now,” she said.
“To this end, a key consideration in management of the estate is that we only operate buildings that we need, eliminating duplication and overlapping service provision, with the savings recycled back into the reform programme.”
She said it was part of long-term reforms that were “already delivering benefits by making access to justice quicker and easier whilst ensuring fairness.