HL Deb 05 July 1989 vol 509 cc1166-9

3.1 p.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their building programme for Crown Courts.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the capital court building programme currently contains nearly 50 schemes for the Crown Court, either in construction or yet to reach that stage, involving both adaptations and new buildings.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that Answer. However, does he agree that the Crown Courts are the last in a noble tradition of public building which should be maintained by employing architects of distinction? Does he agree that there is a tendency, as at Middlesbrough, to use prototypes and to design and use building procedures which result in mediocre buildings? Can he give an assurance that wherever possible old court buildings will be retained and modified for their present legal use and not rendered redundant?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I agree with the view that Crown Court buildings are extremely important public buildings and that an appropriate standard of design must be attained. That standard must enable the building to blend with its environment, create a civic presence reflecting the dignity of justice, command respect for the legal process and mark the place of the law at the focal point of a community. On the other hand, it is also wise to develop general criteria for the requirements of court buildings.

The building at Bradford has similarities with one other court building in its internal layout. But the external appearance is intended to blend with its environment; for example, through the use of local stone for the facing. As regards adaptation of all buildings, where that is economical it is kept very much in mind. But the noble Lord will be aware that it is sometimes extremely difficult to keep the general appearance of an old building while providing the kinds of facilities now required for witnesses, staff and the other users of the court building.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord prepared to put some designs out to open competition among architects given that these are in many cases such important civic buildings? Is he aware that in Telford, where we asked for a building in keeping with the new modern image of the town, what we got was a purely nostalgic pavilion that people think was built in the 1930s? The design was by an in-house architect; we could not shift his authority from that design.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the arrangements attempt to secure good design consistent with creating buildings within a reasonable economic cost. As concerns Telford, the point which the noble Lord raises is obviously a matter of judgment. A nostalgic building may have great attractions for some of us.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in considering the advice of my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley about retaining existing courts in existing positions, will the noble and learned Lord please balance that advice against the necessary considerations of security and ease of accesss for the prison service and for witnesses, particularly when changing traffic patterns sometimes make existing locations quite untenable?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, all these circumstances certainly have to be taken into account. I am sure that my noble friend appreciates that local circumstances sometimes make it impossible to continue with the old building, however desirable it might be. I assure your Lordships that we consider carefully whether the old building can be maintained as the court building before we decide to go for a completely new one.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords—

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that although it is often desirable to retain the originality of buildings, there are some which were originally bad?

The Lord Chancellor

Certainly, my Lords.

Noble Lords

Lord Elwyn-Jones.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, patience has been rewarded! Is it not the case that the time spent in custody by those awaiting trial in the Crown Courts has become grossly excessive? It is an unjust feature of our arrangements. Is there not therefore urgent need to accelerate the building of Crown Courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, obviously one of the aims of the programme which I described in my original Answer is to attempt to cope with this problem. Over the last five years several major schemes have been completed, providing nearly 60 additional Crown Court rooms, almost half in London and the South East. Despite a huge increase in the workload, this has helped over the period to keep average waiting times more or less as they were. Our aim is to reduce these times because I entirely accept the principle underlying the noble and learned Lord's point.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that designing each court building on a one-off basis is a very expensive exercise? At a time when there are severe restrictions on spending on housing, schools and hospitals, is it not nonsense to allow costs to escalate severely in the building of Crown Courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are difficult questions of priorities to be decided in relation to any expense. However, within the limits of trying to be as economical as possible, we attempt to get the best design we can. It is important that the design should take account of the locality. That does not necessarily involve additional expense, but it is an important consideration. It must be taken into account along with all the other considerations that go into the production of a good Crown Court building.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say whether any consideration is being given to the abolition of that archaic institution, the dock? Is it not high time that accused persons were allowed to sit with their legal advisers, as they do in all other civilised Western nations? The present situation is ridiculous. The defendant is isolated in a dock in the centre of the court. This takes up an enormous amount of space and it is impossible for the defendant to communicate with his legal advisers. Is it not high time that that institution was abolished?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am certain that the noble Lord will be aware that these are not matters on which universal agreement is easily reached. Before any decision is taken to abolish the dock, a number of interests would require to be consulted. I have no doubt that the noble Lord is promoting his point of view actively in those quarters.

Lord Benson

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor help us as regards the number of courts in the new programme which are designed and equipped to deal with the new information technology which is developing very quickly in this country?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, this is an aspect of court design which we are taking into account. The precise requirements are not always easy to estimate, but in the design of the buildings the development of a technological requirement is kept in mind.

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