Five courtrooms could shut as justice chiefs face planning consent deadline

·2-min read
Woolwich crown court (PA)
Woolwich crown court (PA)

Five of London’s courtrooms may be forced to close within weeks unless justice chiefs mount a last-minute effort to save them.

A temporary extension to Woolwich crown court has been in place since August 2011, but planning consent for the three-storey building is due to expire this month.

Councillors in Greenwich agreed that the add-on to the southeast London courthouse could be used for a decade, but insisted the modular extension - not of sufficient quality to be retained long-term - must be “removed from the site” when the ten years is up.

With the deadline fast approaching this month, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) insists it intends to keep the courtrooms but now faces a race against time to secure permission to retain the extension or replace it with a permanent structure.

No application has yet been lodged with Greenwich Council, which says major schemes can take up to 13 weeks to be decided on.

When the planning permission expires, court bosses could face enforcement action and even be ordered to pull down the extension, which contains five jury trial hearing rooms.

“We will be writing to the Ministry of Justice to remind it of the planning condition requirements for the temporary extension to Woolwich Crown Court, and to see if it wishes to extend planning permission”, a Greenwich council spokesperson said.

“It is not currently a breach of planning rules, but in the unlikely event that the Ministry of Justice was not to engage with us then it could be. The opportunity is always there to resolve these matters and we look forward to receiving its application to renew planning permission in due course.”

The MoJ said officials have spent two years obtaining specialist reports on the courthouse, but would not reveal what is in the plans or when they would be submitted.

“A planning application is being made for the continued use of these court rooms at Woolwich Crown Court and we have been engaged with the local authority on this matter”, a spokesperson said.

Loss of courtrooms at Woolwich would be a blow to the government’s hopes of maximising court capacity amid efforts to tackle the 58,000-strong backlog of crown court cases across England and Wales.

London’s courts have particularly struggled to get through the backlog of pending cases - despite having a series of extra Nightingale Courts - as limitations on its buildings have reduced the number of trials that can be heard.

The crown court was originally designated as a specialist terrorism court due to its proximity to maximum security HMP Belmarsh, and it recently held hearings in the Julian Assange extradition battle. The extension courtrooms have been in regular use during the pandemic, with four out of the five hearing rooms due to host trials this week.

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