Should the Lord Chancellor really be spending more than ?50 million on creating a supreme court in Westminster while magistrates' funding is being cut by 3.5 per cent a year?
The answer, as Lord Falconer admitted in the Lords this week, is that some of the costs of reconstructing Middlesex Guildhall will fall on litigants in this and other courts in Britain. The rest will be paid by future taxpayers over the next 30 years. The taxpayer will also have to pay for new Crown courts out at Isleworth to house the trials displaced from Middlesex Guildhall.
But surely it is a complete waste of public money to move the law lords across Parliament Square when they will be doing just the same job as they are doing at the moment?
advertisementThat was the question put to Lord Falconer on Tuesday by Lord Lloyd, a retired law lord. He got a dusty answer from the Lord Chancellor. MPs and peers have already passed legislation allowing the final court of appeal to be detached from the House of Lords, Lord Falconer reminded him. "Instead of seeking to re-debate an issue on which Parliament has made a firm decision, we should work together to get the best possible supreme court."
That may not be turn out to be so easy. Conservationists are currently working on a legal challenge that could thwart the Government's plans.
Save Britain's Heritage, which campaigns against threats to historic buildings, is seeking judicial review of the decision to allow alterations to the interior of Middlesex Guildhall ? a Grade II* listed building completed in 1913.
The Guildhall, described by Prof Gavin Stamp as "one of the best secular buildings of the Gothic Revival", was built to house both courtrooms and the Middlesex council chamber ? though the debating chamber has served exclusively as a court since the county was abolished in 1965.
Under the Government's plans, the existing Court 1 would become a library. All its furniture would be moved, the floor would be sunk to basement level, and a solid wall would be replaced with glass. The judge's "throne" would be displayed in the basement and other furniture put into store. Court 3, originally the council chamber, would also lose all its furniture.
These changes are to be introduced because the present law lords ? who are to become the first judges of the supreme court ? have insisted on retaining their existing seminar-style courtrooms. Uniquely, they sit in a semi-circle at the same level as counsel, permitting the lively exchange of views among judges and counsel that sets it apart from the US Supreme Court and others in Europe.
Save Britain's Heritage says that stripping out courtroom interiors amounts to "state vandalism". It points out that English Heritage described the three main interiors in 2004 as unsurpassed by any others of the period "for their decorative richness and the completeness of their fittings".
Although the campaign group is planning to take legal action against the City of Westminster, which granted planning permission and listed building consent in November, lawyers expect that the Lord Chancellor will seek to intervene in the case. It was, after all, Lord Falconer's decision that the supreme court should be housed in Middlesex Guildhall rather than in a wing of Somerset House or a newly-constructed building.
At the heart of the campaigners' planned legal challenge is a claim that Westminster Council acted unlawfully when considering linked applications for planning permission and listed-building consent. Conservationists say the report on which Westminster based its decision to grant planning permission did not mention the Government's policy document governing alterations to listed buildings ? still less follow its requirements.
That policy document, known as PPG 15, says that alterations to a listed building should be made only if they are necessary to keep the building in beneficial use. The conservationists say Middlesex Guildhall is already in use as a court, and would remain so if it were not for these proposals.
But Westminster City Council's director of planning, Gordon Chard, insists that ? far from vandalising the court ? the council is preserving it. Westminster also relies on the fact that the Lord Chancellor's plans have won the support of English Heritage.
Marcus Binney, the founder and president of Save Britain's Heritage, says: "No other owner of a Grade II* listed building would be allowed to strip out interiors of this quality on the basis of a vague promise to display a few key pieces in the basement and find a home for the rest in some other building not yet designed or built."
But an English Heritage spokesman says: "It is absolutely untrue that any pressure was brought to bear on English Heritage to approve the scheme."
It says the adverse effects of removing most of the interior fittings were carefully weighed against the compensating benefits.
There is a case to be made for separating our highest judges from the legislature ? although in practice that separation already largely exists. But once the decision was taken, the Government should have constructed a modern court of which we could all have been proud. Squeezing our most senior judges into a building designed for an different type of court is the worst of all possible worlds.