‘Inappropriate’ temporary court building still in use after 35 years

A “totally inappropriate” temporary court building erected 35 years ago in Snaresbrook is still in use today despite government assurances that it would only stand for five years.

In 1987, Redbridge Council granted permission for the temporary building containing five “crash courts” next to the main court building, a Grade II listed Gothic orphanage built in the 1840s.

However, the annex building was still in use eight years later and, despite the council’s objections, the government’s justice ministry insisted on keeping it permanently.

At the time, in 1995, council planners said the temporary building, now known as the “annex,” had a “utilitarian and at odds” design next to the main building.

According to Historic England, the former orphanage was designed by “one of England’s greatest architects” George Gilbert Smith, who also built the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Midland Grand Hotel and Albert Memorial.

In response to a recent story on a temporary extension being added, a spokesperson for the department now responsible for the courts, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the annex was “never intended to be temporary”.

But a 1995 planning report, obtained through a Freedom of Information request made to Redbridge Council, tells a different story.

Records show Redbridge Council’s conservation advisory committee called the design “totally inappropriate”, as it was next to a listed building designed by a renowned architect and fell within two protected zones, the green belt and Snaresbrook Conservation Area.

The report concluded: “Its continued presence on-site on a permanent basis would detract from the special character and amenity of this unique site, and from the setting of the Listed Building.”

According to a spokesperson for HMCTS, all available courts are needed to deal with a backlog of cases, and there are “no outstanding planning issues” with the annex, which was built before the agency existed.

A spokesperson for Redbridge Council said although it objected in 1995, it will not seek to have the building taken down due to the “significant amount of time” that has passed.

They added: “Planning laws and regulations are drastically different to what they would have been some 27 years ago.

“With that in mind, we are not currently minded to pursue any form of enforcement action against the applicants of this structure – one that has been in place and serving the people of east London since the late 1980s.”

HMCTS is under pressure to clear a huge backlog of cases, which due to their seriousness must be tried by jury at crown courts.

In the year before the pandemic arrived, cuts to the justice system saw the backlog of outstanding cases at Snaresbrook rise from 1,147 to 1,924. It has now doubled, remaining at more than 4,250 for most of 2021.

Elsewhere in London, HMCTS is awaiting a Greenwich Council planning decision regarding whether to keep an extension to Woolwich Crown Court, which was approved for only ten years in 2011.

Although a decision has not yet been made by the council, an acknowledgement letter from its development manager has thanked HMCTS for a payment of £20,790.

Last month Redbridge Council also granted HMCTS permission to add twelve extra holding cells to the annex, in prefabricated units that can stay in place for three years.

Work installing the cells has been halted as the construction company building the cells, Caravan, has gone bankrupt.

Commenting on the news, a barrister regularly representing people who appear in courts in Snaresbrook’s annex said the annex cells are “total chaos”.

The barrister, who asked not to be named, added: “The annex is in a right state, the cells are not fit for purpose; they’re barely large enough to fit a defendant and [barrister] in let alone anyone else.

“I dread to think what would happen if there was an incident.”

Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter