Page last updated at 18:53 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 19:53 UK

New city courthouse is criticised

by Sally Chidzoy
Home Affairs Correspondent, BBC East

Cambridge courts building
The new court building has been criticised by a leading solicitor

A leading solicitor has described a multi-million pound new courthouse in Cambridge as "not fit for purpose" after the lifts failed causing disruption to court proceedings.

Monica Lentin, who represents solicitors in Cambridge, was talking to the BBC on the eve of the official opening of the magistrates' courts.

She said that the lifts had broken down several times since the building was unveiled 11 months ago and that on the most recent occasion they were out of action for up to six weeks.

"They couldn't bring clients from the cells up into the court," she said.

"They used the video link system from court one into the cells for initial hearings.

"That was then stopped after about three weeks because it was felt that it was a breach of prisoners' human rights not to be brought physically into court."

Major redevelopment

A decision was then made to move 36 prisoners, 40 miles to Peterborough magistrates' court between 24 August and 11 September.

One lawyer source told the BBC that security staff had refused to accompany the prisoners up several flights of stairs because it was not in their contract.

The new court building was part of a major redevelopment of Cambridge city centre.

Visitors have to climb 92 steps to reach the top of the building from the ground floor.

There are two further flights of stairs to reach the cells in the basement.

Ms Lentin said she had been told that the lift had been made in Italy and that the part could not be obtained because the Italians were on a long holiday.

'Lack of security'

"I think there are safety issues which make the court unfit for purpose...the main thing being the lifts...and I really think that is a major problem," she said.

"I don't know how that can be addressed...the lifts, lack of security and a lack of proper provision for people who are disabled, that really does concern me."

Lawyers said moving prisoners to Peterborough magistrates court cost taxpayers large sums to cover lawyers, general staffing and transportation.

Prisoners freed in Peterborough were left to make their own way back to Cambridge.

A spokeswoman for Her Majesty's Court Service says the problems with the lifts has been resolved and public access remains unaffected.

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