Martin Surl, Gloucestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, is conducting a public campaign to re-open the old Cirencester courtroom to help solve the local backlog of criminal cases. These cases have been delayed due to the need for demanding social distancing requirements and the shortage of safe and suitable buildings to administer justice.
He has been deeply critical of the Ministry of Justice, accusing the Government of being slow to take up his immediately available, ‘rent-free’ bargain offer of using the old Cirencester court building. Yet all is not as it seems.
His office acquired the building in 2012/13, after it closed for court use in 2011. It has been left empty and unused ever since, despite its obvious re-development potential.
Chris Nelson, candidate to be the new Police and Crime Commissioner at next May’s election, says: “Martin Surl is trying to make political capital out of this issue. He likes to see himself as something of a ‘knight in shining armour’, riding to the rescue of the criminal justice system. Yes, there is a backlog of cases that need to be addressed, caused by the necessary restrictions around the Covid virus. But it would be unsafe to use the old Cirencester courtroom in its current state, which is more dilapidated than the Ministry of Justice had been led to believe. The building has now not been maintained for almost 10 years. The plumbing, heating, ventilation and essential cells all need extensive remedial work, plus a substantial amount of new IT and video communication are also required.
“The safety of court users is clearly everyone’s top priority and I know that local options for a Nightingale Court in Gloucestershire are still being explored. Thanks to the hard work of judges and officials, as well as the introduction of new Nightingale courts, the caseload in magistrates’ courts around the country continues to fall, despite stories to the contrary.
“The Ministry of Justice is attempting to find many new buildings nationally that can quickly be converted into Nightingale Courts. Providing a ‘rent-free’ building may seem superficially attractive but not if that building has been neglected and is not currently suitable for use. It is gesture politics of the worst kind and seems more about attracting media attention for his re-election campaign,” says Mr Nelson. “Blaming the Ministry of Justice unfairly for a lack of urgency to make one of Mr Surl’s own buildings fit for use, a building that he should have
maintained or otherwise made good use of, is not likely to lead to a good result for the residents of Gloucestershire.
“I am now really worried that his political show boating will encourage the Ministry of Justice to find a more helpful and transparent landlord outside of the county, forcing court attendees to travel much further than they need to.”