One of London’s crown courts will be shuttered for an extra year thanks to dangerous concrete found in the roof, it has emerged, in a blow to efforts to tackle the criminal case backlog.
Harrow crown court was closed down last August after Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) was discovered during upgrade work, and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said the closure would last six to nine months.
But it emerged on Tuesday that the closure is set to be far longer than originally expected, as the RAAC was more widespread than first thought.
Harrow West MP Gareth Thomas took to social media to say he is “very disappointed” with the news that the closure of the courthouse, which has eight hearing rooms fir for jury trials, is now expected to continue until April 2025.
“When it closed last August they said it'd be open again in 6-9 months”, he posted. “Ministers urgently need to tackle the courts backlog. People from Harrow need local, swift access to justice.”
An HMCTS spokesperson said: “We have determined that the work to replace the roof of Harrow Crown Court will take longer than initially expected following further investigation by professional surveyors.
“There has been minimal disruption since it closed in August with hearings taking place in other courts in London and the South-East. We plan to continue this approach until Harrow reopens in April 2025.”
Courtrooms around London, including at the Old Bailey, Croydon crown court, and Willesden magistrates court have been commandeered for cases that would have been heard in Harrow.
Hearing rooms at the old Hendon magistrates court, which had been converted to assist with the burgeoning backlog at Wood Green crown court, have also been used for Harrow cases, while some trials have been moved as far afield as Amersham.
Harrow crown court was not among the original courts surveyed by HMCTS in 2020 in search of RAAC, which was first thought to be confined to buildings built between 1960 and the late 1980s.
The concrete became popular in construction, but has a limited lifespan and can collapse with little or no warning.
The RAAC surveys in courts were extended to 1990s constructions after the discovery at Harrow, during unrelated work intended to upgrade the roof.
RAAC has also been identified at Inner London crown court, though the courthouse has remained open and HMCTS has so far declined to identify the location of the dangerous concrete.
The news came as Lady Carr, the Lady Chief Justice, warned that the state of the courts in England and Wales threatens to undermine the country’s reputation for gold standard justice.
“The fact that our court estate across the board is not in good shape does potentially influence our standing internationally”, she said.
“It's a matter of common sense. I mean you would all have looked abroad at Singapore, at the other jurisdictions, the buildings that they have there and the facilities that they have, including when it comes to IT.”
She also pointed to comments on the decaying state of the courts by new Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC, saying: “He makes some very good points.”
At her first press conference since becoming Lady Chief Justice, Lady Carr praised the impact of extra ‘Nightingale’ courts in helping to tackle the criminal court backlog, which has now reached more than 66,000 cases.
She said courts are making “creative use” of the space available, setting up virtual courtrooms, and she did not rule out the possibility of courts sitting extra hours to get through more work.
And she added: “When it comes to radical options, I don't hold the levers to really make a significant inroad, in my assessment, to Crown Court timeliness in particular.
“I can chip away at the edges, and it doesn't put us off, we're still doing everything we possibly can.
“But I don't see us knocking tens of thousands of cases out of the system without something pretty radical, that would include the not-so-radical lifting the pause on magistrates’ sentencing powers, so they go back up to 12 months, and then looking, I think, at disclosure, looking at the balance of cases that go to the Crown Court as opposed to the Magistrates Court and so on and so forth.”
Law Society president Nick Emmerson said: “The derelict court estate is a clear reflection of the state of our justice system due to decades of underinvestment. Courtroom closures add to the long delays faced by victims, witnesses and defendants.
“Floods, ceilings caving in, freezing temperatures, sewage, mould and asbestos were just part of the picture painted by our survey of solicitors about the chaotic state of the courts in which they work.
“Extended delays to re-open Harrow Crown Court will further impact efforts to tackle the large backlog of cases in London.”