I visited the new Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on Thursday the 23rd of October.
I had visited at 14.00 on the afternoon of the opening day – on Monday the 20th, to be told that there were no courts sitting that afternoon, and there would not be any adult courts until Thursday. This left me concerned that the new building was not being used to capacity, and I wondered if individuals in police custody might be being sent out of the city. I asked if the temporary court building on Hauxton Road had closed and was told it had. I was also told it was a quiet time.
Sue Harper from the Cambridge Magistrates’ Court reassured me:
I would like to reassure you that a remand court does sit every weekday in order to deal with anyone arrested and detained by the Police overnight, on any occasion where it is not possible for these remands to take place at the local court arrangements are made for anyone detained to be taken to another courthouse within Cambridgeshire.
I finally got beyond the front desk on St. Andrew’s street on Thursday. There is only a small foyer with a security desk, lifts and doors to the stairs on the ground floor. The cloudy glass doors make the entrance appear more foreboding than it needs to be. The stairs are narrow and enclosed and rather like something you might expect on a 1960s multi-story carpark, they certainly felt intimidating and unsafe to me. I was expecting smart modern functional architecture, what they’ve got is worse than the temporary courts at the park and ride.
Inside the courts there is apparently natural light above the magistrates’ bench, but the accused and others in the court are unlikely to see a glimpse of it. I also found it much more difficult to hear proceedings at the front of the court than I had in the temporary courts.
A number of flaws in the new building were revealed:
- The Clerk did not have phone numbers for others in the court complex.
- A solicitor was complaining that the lifts were prioritised to service the public floors (1,2,3) so had left him stuck in a small space next to the lifts in the basement where the cells are for long enough for him to call security who told him it was a known problem and there was nothing they could do about it.
- There’s a crazy policy on the door – you can take in camera phones but not dedicated cameras.
- There were not enough ushers working on Thursday for one per court, meaning the clerk had to do a lot of running around and leaving the court.
- A lack of clerks was a constraint on being able to book future trial dates.
- Solicitors claimed there were not enough interview rooms and were suggesting there was a need to divide the current interview rooms into two.
The clerk announced to the court that the Court Administrative officer, to whom complaints about the new building should be addressed as “Alex Pether”
As courts are held in public, and as I was present for an afternoon I may as well share what I saw:
Cambridge City Council – Benefit Cheats
I first saw the sentencing of Sylvia and David Stribley whose trial had been publicised by the Cambridge Evening news (as now has the sentencing). The couple had admitted 11 charges of failing to disclose their income to the city council when applying for housing and Council Tax benefit. The amount involved amounted to around £14000 over seven years.
Three city council staff appeared to be in court merely to observe the sentencing. One thing which is clear from the court system is that lots of people in public service jobs waste a huge amount of time waiting around.
The Stribley’s defence solicitor argued that the trial and the coverage of the story by the Cambridge Evening News had been punishment enough in itself, I was surprised this argument did not make the Evening News’ coverage. Their solicitor also reported that Sylvia Stribley’s employer, Robinson College still trusted her to do her job as a housekeeper. It was also reported that they were paying off what they owed at a rate of £19.15/week. No one did the calculation to show that it would take about 14 years to pay the money back at this rate.
Their sentence was a two month custodial sentence, suspended for two years, and a two month curfew from 6pm to 8am to be monitored by electronic tag. They were also to pay costs of £162.50 each.
Appeal by Tesco Against Noise Abatement Notice
This was due on the 16th of October, but there was no court sitting on that day (perhaps due to the move) so was rescheduled for 14.30 on the 6th of November.
Where this refers to wasn’t announced in court but it is likely to be Newmarket Road Tesco’s equipment which comes on at just after 5am which the residents of the flats behind the store have been complaining about.
Employment of School Age Children
The charge was that the couple running the shop had employed eight children without the appropriate work permits.
The court was told that to employ school age children as paper delivery people a work permit is required. This needs to be approved by their parents, school and education authority.
The prosecution presented evidence collected by a Cambridgeshire County Council officer who was authorized to conduct directed surveillance on the store under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. It was reported he had seen a number of apparently children working in the store as paper delivery people.
The prosecutor said that he was aware of eight applications for work permits which had been sent to the children’s school. Three had been signed, five had not been. The chairman of the bench asked if any reason had been given for those not signed and none had been given. The prosecutor gave “attendance” as an example of something which might prevent a permit being signed.
The prosecuting solicitor handed the clerk and Magistrates what he called a copy of the “byelaws” with the relevant section highlighted. As far as I can see the relevant law is Section 18 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and can’t believe any byelaws were involved.
The magistrates proceeded to find the case proven (on what basis I have no idea – I presume on the basis of papers they were handed – I was unimpressed that they appeared to make a decision based on evidence not read out or summarised in open court, if they found the case prooved on the basis of the council spy’s evidence I would be shocked – he did not identify particular individuals ).
Magistrates found the case proven in the absence of the defendants, the prosecution asked for costs of £100 for each defendant.
The magistrates asked about the defendants means, and the clerk explained that the defendants had apparently decided not to communicate with the local authority and not to tell the court anything. She also noted there was little guidance she could give on a case like this as they were so rare.
The court had apparently lost paperwork relating to some of the children. There clearly should have been sixteen bits of paper, one for each child and each defendant, but some were missing from the Clerk’s file – but the prosecutor had court stamped copies indicating they had been submitted to the court. The Clerk said: “I find it a bit worrying”.
The magistrates stated they were considering a fine of £50 per offence, per offender. ie. £800 shared between the couple.
The clerk stated that she was banning the reporting of the children’s names under “Section 39″ she did not mention the Act but it appears to be the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, in line with that I have not named the children or the shop or the shop’s location, all of which were read out in court.
At this point, just moments before the case would have been closed the defendants came into court. They had apparently gone to the temporary court site on the park and ride site which was why they were late.
The clerk asked them, if they had been present earlier if they would have pleaded guilty or not guilty. They said not guilty (actually only the male defendant said this but clearly the court took him to be answering for both of them). The clerk warned them that by doing this they were potentially increasing the court costs they would have to pay if they were found guilty.
I was disappointed that the defendants were not told of the fine being proposed by the magistrates before they came in.
The defendant, explained he was confident of his innocence and stuck with “not guilty” so a trial date of the 1st of December at 11am was set with a deadline of the 10th of November given for the defendants to write to the council explaining what they thought was wrong with the council’s case.
Sue Cousins, Education Welfare Officer for Cambridgeshire County Council and two colleagues watched proceedings from the public gallery.
The opinion of her colleagues was that the couple were making it harder on themselves by not pleading guilty.
Going back to my notes I have just realised that the permits were being submitted to the school in early August, suggesting perhaps some of this work might have been in the school holidays, something which was not discussed in court.
Cellar Bar 8
An appeal against the decision of a Cambridge City Council Licensing Committee was to be scheduled. The appeal is against the reduction of hours of opening.
It is to be an all-day trial, with Cambridge City Council’s solicitor calling eight witnesses, including the chair of the licensing committee, Cllr Stuart, Inspector Porter of Cambridgeshire Police, a licensing enforcement officer and four local residents. Cellar Bar 8 are to call the manager and licensee.
The appeal was set for the 5th of December, subject the the clerk’s availability.
I cannot see why three magistrates should be able to overturn the decision of councillors, assuming the council have followed the correct procedures.
Speeding in High Street Trumpington
A young man attended, pleading guilty to speeding at more than 30 mph on High Street Trumpington.
He said he wanted to present the magistrates with: “special reasons not to endorse”.
The unnecessarily sharp reply from the clerk was: “Not today you won’t”.
The clerk then explained the magistrates could not proceed in the absence of a prosecutor.
The clerk suggested the defendant look up the case of R vs Wickens, and told him he would have to meet the criteria given there in order to for the magistrates not to endorse.
R v Wickens appears to be a case from 1958.
- a special reason must be a mitigating or extenuating circumstance;
- it must not amount in law to a defence;
- it must be directly connected with the commission of the offence;
- and it must be a matter which the court ought properly to take into account when considering sentence.
A one hour sentencing session was scheduled for 12 noon on the 5th of January.
Another Benefit Cheat
A sixty-nine year old man from Hunstanton appeared in court as the defendant. He was accompanied by his daughter.
Like a case when I last visited the court this man had savings which he wanted to pass on to his children rather than spend, so he did not declare his capital when claiming housing benefit and council tax benefit. He had since actually given his capital away to his two daughters – £15 000 each.
The council reported that £14165 of housing benefit and £2854 of council tax benefit had been paid which he was not entitled to.
He was repaying at £20 / week which the council were happy with, they were seeking costs of £561.
The defendant was ill, in a wheelchair, had a stammer which had been made worse by a recent stroke and his memory was not good.
The defendant required 24 hour care, which was something the magistrates were asked to consider before sending him to jail, if that’s what they were considering doing.
It was reported that the daughters had not paid the public funds back. The said they could not do so and were unable to make good the losses to South Cambridgeshire District Council.
The man was sentenced to two months in custody, suspended for two years, along with a curfew from 8pm to 6am. He had to pay costs of £280.
Magistrates directed that his electronic tag be fixed to his right arm, as he had trouble using his legs and left arm following his stroke. Magistrates had heard that he was occasionally taken out to the pub in the evenings so the curfew would be a real punishment.
The magistrates failed to say anything further so the clerk intervened and told the defendant he was free to go. I felt the magistrates were a bit wet and failed to take control of the court, leaving it too much to the clerk.
Another Benefit Cheat
A Mr Yardly, of no fixed address, currently living with his grandfather on Newmarket Road in Cambridge appeared before the court.
He had many previous offenses but none for benefit cheating. I say benefit cheating as at the last minute the council withdrew the charge that he had dishonestly defrauded the public, and dropped the word dishonest from the charge.
It was also reported to the court that he had previously been injured in a fight outside a nightclub in Ely.
His defense lawyer said he had to make regular visits to Wales to see his daughter so would not really want a curfew. He also said he was off work due to an injury from a car accident so unpaid work was not an option. The defense suggested a supervision order.
The probation officer called in said she was not fully qualified, and Cambridge Magistrates’ court’s fully trained probation officer was leaving so no assessment of the sentencing options could be made rapidly, on behalf of the probation service she asked the court for three weeks to prepare a report which the magistrates allowed, setting a date for sentencing of the 11th of November.
The probation service were asked for a photocopy of some form, to which they replied they had not got a photocopier yet in the new building and asked to use the clerks.
After this case the Magistrates raised a concern in court – addressed I presume to electors in the Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire areas asking why prosecutions were being brought without the “Dishonest element”, noting that three cases that afternoon for cheating benefits had had the “dishonest” element removed. The Clerk and Magistrates discussed this in court, the Clerk suggesting that it was harder to prove dishonesty and the council’s wanted a conviction, even for a lesser offense. No explanation was given for why two charges were not brought – one for dishonestly defrauding the state and one for simply defrauding the state!
Council Tax Liability Notice
A Mr Maitland [sp], an engineer from Longstowe in Cambridgeshire was in court, prepared to defend against South Cambridgeshire District Council’s attempt to make him liable for some council tax he was arguing he was not liable for.
The Council decided not to pursue their case.
Mr Maitland insisted on addressing the Magistrates in any case, even though they could do nothing. He explained he simply wanted to have his [albeit futile] say in court. He claimed none of the council’s figures added up, he said he wasn’t even in England for much of the relevant period (Does that excuse you from paying council tax on a property?!) he also claimed the council were not communicating with him. He also claimed that the property in question had been repossessed during the relevant period. Magistrates told him there was nothing they could do as the council had decided not to pursue the case. I was the only person left in the public gallery by this stage of the afternoon, well after 17.00, and Mr Maitland appeared disappointed that there was not more of an audience for his rant against South Cambridgeshire District Council – asking me, hopefully, if I was a member of the Press on his way out. I hope my presence made him feel slightly better and hope I can draw attention to his claims that SCDC don’t appear to be handling his council tax liability dispute very well by writing about it.
He complained, quite rightly in my view, about the council withdrawing the case at the last moment – in court in front of the Magistrates; he asked why the council could not have informed him they were not pursuing it earlier.
Non-payment of Council Tax
The resident of 33 Foxhollow in Cambourne (an interesting address to Google) was the next defendant, he appeared in person. He described himself as a self-employed marketing consultant.
He was accused of having £7K of outstanding council tax, relating to two different properties. The council reported he had been hard to trace as he had lived at five different addresses since 2002.
Bailiffs had visited but found no suitable goods to take, and the council were pressing magistrates for a prison sentence.
The defendant was given an opportunity to respond to the charges, he claimed he was waiting for a transfer of money from Zimbabwe to enable him to pay. He said this had been held, under money laundering regulations, by the UK authorities. He said that he had taken council officials to a meeting with his bank where this had been confirmed to them.
He offered to pay £2500, which he said he would obtain from friends and family within a couple of weeks. Magistrates agreed and set a date for paying the oldest bills -which amounted to around £2600 and a date was be set for reviewing the full amount giving him more chance to obtain the funds. The clerk noted that if he paid the debt that would be the end of the matter.
Police Sergeant 1666 came into the court in uniform, wanting a couple of warrants to enter premises signed. The court was emptied while Magistrates dealt with these, I believe some more council tax cases, without respondents present in-person, would have been dealt with after the warrants.