First look inside London’s newest crown court as Hendon magistrates is repurposed to tackle huge cases backlog

Tristan Kirk
·4-min read
 (Tristan Kirk )
(Tristan Kirk )

The last time Hendon magistrates court opened for criminal cases, just five defendants were due in the dock for crimes including public nuisance and driving while on the phone.

Now, probably London’s quietest magistrates court is being revitalised, transformed into a crown court as part of efforts to tackle the growing criminal justice backlog.

The Evening Standard took a look around the £250,000 refit to the courthouse, as it prepared to start hosting jury trials for the first time in its 122-year history.

Judge Noel Lucas QC, the resident judge in Wood Green, has set up his chambers in one of Hendon’s back offices, overseeing a project that has been at least six months in the making.

Social distancing measures that came with the Covid-19 pandemic reduced Wood Green to hearing just four trials at any one time. Like every other courthouse, some of its hearing rooms had to become jury deliberation rooms, meaning little could be done to stop the backlog growing ever bigger.

Figures show Wood Green currently has a 1400-strong queue of cases, compared to around 400 at the end of 2018 and 845 five years ago, while the crown court backlog across England and Wales is now approaching 57,000 cases.

Faced with this picture, Judge Lucas was determined there should be a hunt for extra space to get more jury trials on, and quicker. An attempt to move into a community centre in Haringey was thwarted on safety grounds, but HM Courts and Tribunals Services officials suggested a transformation of Hendon magistrates court instead.

“It’s an absolutely phenomenal asset, it allows us to - almost at a stroke - double the trial capacity of Wood Green”, Judge Lucas told the Standard.

“It won’t allow us to significantly reduce the backlog at a stroke, but what it will do is to stop the backlog increasing at anything like the same rate it is increasing at the moment.

“That means when we are able to return courtrooms to normal operations, we have a far easier task to get the backlog under control - it’s a vital first step in that process.”

The Hendon court, set on the A5 just north of Brent Cross shopping centre, already has its own custody suite, from the time it was the first stop for many north London defendants on their journey through the criminal justice system.

But by 2018 it had become a satellite centre for Westminster magistrates court - hearing the occasional high-profile case involving Harry Styles’s stalker or hedge fund boss Crispin Odey - but limited to just a trickle of cases each day.

One of the major challenges in the conversion was finding space for 12 jurors in courtrooms that usually have none. Members of the public called on to try cases at the newly-configured Hendon will find themselves seated in and around what used to be the public gallery.

Tristan Kirk
Tristan Kirk

Lawyers’ desks have been stripped out to make extra space, and everyone in court is surrounded by plexiglass screens as per Public Health rules. Solicitors and police officers may find themselves asked to wait outside, as the number of seats is unavoidably limited.

“We have done the maximum we can do and used the space as best we can to accommodate as much work as possible safely”, said Mahesh Patel, the court’s operations manager who has worked on the transformation with project manager Tracey Grant.

“The first few weeks will be crucial to see the footfall and how we are managing it.”

One of the more historic of the building’s five courtrooms, with its quaint but impractical dock, has become a jury deliberation room instead, while an administrative offices has been emptied to accommodate up to 50 jurors arriving each day.

The courthouse already comes with its own cells, meaning two of the courts can take trials where the defendant is in custody, while a third room is set aside for bail cases.

Mike Foot, the Serco court custody manager at Hendon, says they are ready and equipped to take on more work.

“When we were told it was going to be a crown court, and the work load would increase, we were looking forward to it”, he said.

“We don’t like to be sitting around doing nothing, so we are looking forward to it.”

The new set-up has been given the green light for the next 12 months, before a decision on whether the change can be made permanent.

Creating crown courtrooms in the magistrates does not come without its issues: the vantage point for some jurors of the defendant is not ideal; barristers will have to turn their backs to the judge to speak directly to the jury.

Just four members of the public and media can follow a trial at a time, with most of them reduced to watching proceedings on a screen in a nearby room.

But the extra resource for a justice system pedaling hard just to try to keep up will be broadly welcomed.

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