Justice ‘frozen out’ by cold snap, says Thames magistrate

A FURIOUS magistrate has spoken out this week for the first time and accused Her Majesty’s Court Service of ‘Scrooge’ tactics which she says is freezing the wheels of justice in East London.

Jenny Barnes blames Ministry of Justice officials for putting the administration of justice at risk at Thames Magistrates’ court, one of the busiest in London, in the run-up to Christmas.

A directive has been sent to the management of the courthouse in Bow Road, which handles hundreds of criminal and civil cases every week from across Tower Hamlets and neighbouring Hackney, ordering staff not to turn on the heating to save on costs.

It led to freezing temperatures during last week’s snow which disrupted court cases.

One prosecutor refused to take any more cases from the court list because of the freezing conditions, while lawyers were planning to organise a petition to the Ministry of Justice, the East London Advertiser understands.

One prisoner appearing in the dock told his counsel he was too cold to continue his defence. The prison van driver who brought him to court had to fetch a coat for him.

Magistrates and district judges have also been sitting in court in overcoats and wrapped in scarves.

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“Even the district judges complain these working conditions are illegal,” magistrate Ms Barnes told the Advertiser.

“We’re having to wear outdoor clothing in the building. Heating levels are so low they would not be tolerated in a prison.

“But because of the delicate nature of the judicial system, the staff can’t walk out on strike.

“They are also frightened for their jobs because of the recession and fear they would be made redundant—so they’re moaning about it, but not officially complaining.”

The fuel economies that would make Charles’ Dickens’ Scrooge character proud this Christmas came to a head during last week’s blizzards—when the prosecutor in one of the eight courtrooms stopped proceedings because the temperature fell below the legal minimum.

So desperate was the situation that electric heaters have now been brought into the building to cope with the freezing temperatures.

“It’s contempt for the law,” Ms Barnes insisted. “Justice is in danger of not being served because of a directive to cut fuel consumption.

“The cold is badly affecting some JPs who are suffering ill health including arthritis. My colleagues on the benches have been hearing cases wearing mufflers.”

The fuel cuts have been going on for two years, it is understood, with no heating in winter and no air conditioning in the summer.

“They are making too many cuts,” Ms Barnes added. “Our canteen was closed down this year—now there’s just one microwave between 50 of us. They’ve had to go out and hire emergency electric heaters—it doesn’t make sense.”

But HM Court Service this week denied it was forcing its staff to work in illegal conditions. The heating at the courthouse had been “adjusted,” we were told.

A spokesman said: “Portable heaters also being used as a short-term measure to improve the temperature in the building during this period of very cold weather. The temperature in all offices and courtrooms in the building is above the legal limit.”

Some 90 justices and six district judges sit at Thames Magistrates’ Court on criminal trials, remands, sentence hearings and civil summonses, in addition to court ushers and other staff who keep the building running—or try to, in the cold weather.