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MoJ 'freezing us out' says JP

10 December 2010

Skimping on fuel bills is putting justice at risk, according to one magistrate.

Scarves and hats are being worn alongside gowns and wigs following the alleged dispatch of a government memo ordering heating to be turned down to cut costs.

“The animals in Battersea Dog’s Home wouldn’t be kept in conditions like this,” said JP Jenny Barnes, adding: “If it were a prison they would demand to be evacuated, and quite rightly.”

Barnes reports that cases have been disrupted by the “unbearable” conditions at Thames Magistrates’ Court in East London, famed for is frequent appearances of rock star Pete Doherty.

The magistrate recounted one recent case in which a prosecutor packed up her bundles and left in protest at the freezing conditions. A defendant was also spotted interrupting his counsel midway through a case saying he was unable to continue until a Serco security officer found him a coat.

“It is ludicrous,” said Barnes. “Nobody expects to wear a sundress in court but to have to wear your outdoor clothes like scarves and hats while trying to administer justice – it is unprofessional, and undermines the seriousness of what we are doing here.”

Barnes said the unbearable conditions were “all to do” with the Ministry of Justice spending review, adding: “Staff in all departments of the court are in such fear of their jobs that, other than complaining to their line manager, they daren’t speak up.”

The MoJ has been ordered to cut 23 per cent of its budget in line with the coalition government’s spending review and has recently completed a public consultation on the closure of 103 magistrates’ courts and 54 county courts to save more than £36m in maintenance and running costs.

One district judge, who did not want to be named, told Solicitors Journal: “If health and safety heating levels are not adhered to I would regard this as good reason for the judiciary and staff to down law books and for defendants et al to require their cases to be adjourned.”

There was talk among Thames Magistrates’ regular solicitors to set up a petition for the temperature to be raised, but Barnes believes that once word reached HMCS’ headquarters that a revolt was brewing the heating was immediately cranked up.

“Yesterday there was one court room that I know of that was so hot that they were taking clothes off. When it dies down they will go back to the usual practice, which is freezing us out.”

Explaining that she was lucky because she did not rely on her post for income, Barnes said: “Some people think I am a hero for saying what I have. Others think it is disgusting.”

Mark Kram, spokesman for the Courts Service has insisted no memo was sent out banning the use of radiators and that the temperature is always kept above the legal minimum of 16 degrees centigrade, adding that extra heaters have been scrambled to battle the big freeze.

“The heating at Thames Magistrates' Court has been adjusted and portable heaters are also being used as a short-term measure to improve the temperature in the building during this period of very cold weather,” said Kram. “The temperature in all offices and courtrooms in the building is above the legal limit.”

Miss Barnes described the statement as “absolute rubbish”.

The Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the existence of a memo ordering radiators to be switched off. But Barnes says it is well known among the court that they are under strict instructions to keep the heat low, adding: “There was also a directive sent stating that the air conditioning must be kept off to save money.”

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Costs Local government Courts & Judiciary