Philip Stott is a junior barrister specialising in crime and practising mainly in London and the South-East. He is Co-Chair of the Bar Council's Legal Services Committee. Philip writes about his experience working as a barrister in the crumbling criminal court estate in London and makes a plea for sustained investment to avoid the need for even greater expenditure in the future.


A minor anecdote: The metal number ‘2’ in ‘12’ above the doorway to Court 12 at Southwark Crown Court fell off a decade ago. It was replaced at that point by an enterprising member of staff with silver coloured duct tape. Years ago, the taped number ‘2’ itself also then fell off. It has never been replaced.

A more serious anecdote: A barrister friend of mine who uses a wheelchair had to stop sitting as a Recorder because the provision of accessible judicial facilities in London was such that there was only one Crown Court centre they could sit at, and the sole judicial lift there broke down so often.

Last year, I defended in a trial at Inner London Sessions. That court building, in a microcosm, shows the history and the challenges of providing a court estate that works. The oldest current part of the court is the grand front part, built in the 1920s. It looks great - it has a large airy entrance hall, and wood panelled corridors and rooms. There are two courts in the old part, numbers 1 and 2, done in the classic Victorian/Edwardian style – all double-height ceilings, ornate carvings, wooden benches, and all on multiple layers with little steps everywhere. It is, of course, almost totally inaccessible to anyone with mobility issues. It is too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Due to the ceilings, the acoustics are terrible, particularly for defendants due to the modern introduction of a high-sided secure dock.

There is a 1950s extension at the back - Courts 3 and 4. Again high-ceilinged and bedecked in wood, but straight lines and no ornamentation. The spaces between the benches are a little wider, but it is all still on multiple levels. Again, glass panelling makes hearing in the dock difficult, and the heating is wildly variable.

Then there is a truly dreadful two-storey 1970s extension to the side – Courts 5-10 – nicknamed ‘the chocolate box’ because its exterior is clad in brown tinted glass, reminiscent of the cellophane on confectionary from times past. Each court room is on one level, so at least they are more usable, but the ceilings are low, and the walls are made of bare whitewashed breezeblocks, thereby giving the impression of conducting a trial in a cold-storage locker. They are perhaps the ugliest court rooms in England. This aesthetic difference vividly shows how the courts moved from being expressions of municipal pride to warehouses for the provision of minimally acceptable services.

During my trial, it rained quite heavily. A leak caused flooding onto apparently exposed wiring which meant that the staff refused to escort prisoners through the tunnel connecting the cells to the 1970s extension. That resulted in all custody trials in half-a-dozen courts not sitting for half a day - during a period of unprecedented backlog. At one point, I went into the advocates’ dining room to work (not to eat, the kitchen there closed many years ago) and saw water gushing from the ceiling and a despondent member of staff arranging wheelie-bins underneath.

On any view, the building is in desperate need of something. The ‘20s and ‘50s parts of the building are, rightly, listed (the ‘chocolate box’ is overdue for total replacement in my view) but the Old Bailey shows how old buildings can, with significant investment, be sympathetically modernised. With the permanent closure of the (1990s era and wheelchair accessible) Blackfriars Crown Court, Inner London’s ten courtrooms now represent nearly a fifth of central London’s permanent criminal courts. With backlog levels as high as they are, the system simply cannot do without Inner London Sessions and the hard-working, dedicated judges and court staff who work there.

HMCTS will, perfectly properly, point to large amounts won from the Treasury for renewing the Court estate. That is to be welcomed, of course. There is, though, a mountain of work to be done, and even these millions will not be enough to make all courts fit for purpose, particularly if the overall budget is squeezed yet again.

My point is a broader one. Over decades, and particularly recently during austerity, the court estate was trimmed right to the bone. Buildings were not invested in by way of proper maintenance or refurbishment, or they were simply disposed of. It is relatively easy and quick to get rid of a courthouse on the grounds it is temporarily underused (Blackfriars) or too expensive to make fit for modern life compared to its underlying real estate value (Bow Street, Tower Bridge etc).

Just like prisons, it takes an enormously long time, and a great deal of money, to either properly refurbish an old court, or to create a new court (see the much-vaunted new complex at Fleet Street which has been in the works for seven years and is still not yet open).

Whoever has control of the Ministry of Justice after the next election must never allow the situation to develop where short-term budgetary cuts are again allowed to prejudice the long-term future of our court estate. Otherwise, the costs that will have to be borne by the next generation will simply be all the higher.