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Courts: Bow Street Magistrates’ Court

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Courts Service is currently progressing a project to provide a new 10-courtroom magistrates’ court in central London, replacing poor existing facilities. As part of this process, a number of options for the new court building were considered, including Bow Street. However, following a careful analysis, it was decided that Bow Street would be unsuitable for providing a new court building of the size required and incapable of meeting modern needs. As a consequence, recognising the substandard facilities that were being provided for users and following public consultations undertaken by the former Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority, the building was closed and subsequently sold, and alternative facilities were provided at Horseferry Road, pending the delivery of the new court.

My Lords, I suppose that I have to declare an interest as a magistrate who sat in Bow Street. This closure is absolutely disgraceful, and I hope that whoever took these decisions is ashamed of themselves. It is an 18th-century building and the home of the Bow Street Runners and the Peelers. Surely it could have been turned into a museum. It is a disgrace to us that we could not have preserved this small building in a very important position.

My Lords, I am the person who should be ashamed, if that is the position. I shall very tentatively correct two assertions: it is a 19th-century building, not 18th-century, and the Bow Street Runners were never based there. We considered that before we decided whether to close the court. We were faced with a dilemma. People who use courts in central London need high standards, and the question was: should we sell Bow Street and get some money for it—and we did—and then use it to build a better 10-court facility?

We wondered whether Bow Street should be used for a museum, but it is next door to a building that used to be a police station. If the two were put together, it was possible to realise quite a substantial sum. I cannot tell your Lordships how much because of commercial confidentiality but, for the purposes of people who use court, it was a beneficial series of decisions.

My Lords, recalling the closure not long ago of another great central London magistrates’ court—namely, Great Marlborough Street, which is now a hotel—does the Minister agree that both that court and Bow Street have been extremely convenient over the years, so far as their position is concerned, for defendants, the police, advocates, magistrates and the public? Will he assure us that the substitutes that will in due course come in to replace these great courts will be as convenient for the various stakeholders involved?

My Lords, how convenient they were depends on who you are. Bow Street magistrates’ court was incredibly convenient for the Bar; Marylebone Road, where the 10-court site is currently planned to be, will be convenient for more people, including more solicitors, because it has a wider catchment area.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that our noble friend Lord Borrie is quite wrong? So far as Bow Street is concerned—

My Lords, those of us who can recall our early forensic triumphs and disaster at Bow Street may view this with barely a sigh in view of the extraordinarily inadequate facilities. Can the noble and learned Lord give an assurance that the proposed grouping and clustering of courts meets the local needs of those for whom magistrates’ courts are central—not only professionals, but witnesses and others?

Very much so, my Lords. One of the things that was very much in my mind and those of others looking at the decision was to make things as convenient as possible. Bow Street is a splendid historical place, as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said. Most of its work in recent years has in fact been dealing with extradition, which is not about the convenience of the locals. Court utilisation shows that that is how Bow Street has been used over that time. We have been trying to find a place that can do that but which can also serve the public.

My Lords, I cannot give the precise date; it depends, to a certain extent, on planning permission. The work that has been done by Bow Street magistrates’ court is now being done very well by Westminster magistrates sitting in Horseferry Road.

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that this decision is absolutely right? Those of us who from time to time over the years practised in that court found that the building was undistinguished, the cells virtually medieval, the courts cramped and there was virtually no opportunity for counsel to confer with their clients? The Government should stick to their decision.

My Lords, the decision is now beyond recovery because we have sold Bow Street. I am distressed that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is distressed, but grateful to my noble friend Lord Richard. I should tell noble Lords that parts of the history should be saved. I was given a list of the things that have been saved from the court—the crest in one court, the dock in another and the chandeliers in the judges’ rooms.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is quite wrong. I sat in Great Marlborough Street and in Horseferry Road as well. As far as I was concerned, all the shoplifters from Oxford Street were seen at Great Marlborough Street; Horseferry Road had the occasional Westminster schoolboy and a great many other shoplifters from the Army & Navy, which no longer exists; and, quite frankly, Bow Street was sex.

My Lords, surely the noble and learned Lord is wrong to say that, due to reasons of commercial interest, he is not able to tell us the cost. As Bow Street has now been sold, surely that is a matter for open explanation.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness was referring to the price paid for the building. You never know if you get more by making it confidential.

My Lords, in a warehouse in Catford, east London, there are all kinds of historical items from the Metropolitan Police. Notwithstanding what my noble and learned friend said earlier, would this not be an ideal time to set up a museum for the Metropolitan Police?

My Lords, there is a partial museum in New Scotland Yard, where various items are kept by the Metropolitan Police, but it would have been a very poor use of the very limited resources of Her Majesty’s Courts Service to use the prospective money that could have been got from Bow Street to create a museum. I regard it as far more important to provide courts for people.