Story published May 2012
Law Courts Facing Closure
Background to the Project
In 2010 the coalition government announced that a number of magistrates’ and county courts across England would be discontinued. This decision was made in order to cut costs in the Ministry of Justice.
English Heritage has recently completed a project to create records that will be available on PastScape from a priority list of these law courts. The decision to carry out this project arose from the immediate nature of the threat to England’s heritage and the need to have a record of these buildings.
The law courts of England often hold an important role in communities through their symbolic and functional position as centres of legal justice. They are also community buildings along with Town Halls, libraries, civic centres and other public buildings. It is therefore important that these law courts that are facing closure are documented as a part of England’s historic legacy.
The exterior of Ely Magistrates' Court (Ref. AA96 / 05799) © Crown copyright. English Heritage
The project involved selecting the law courts and creating individual records of them, which are available through PastScape based upon information gathered through an architectural survey carried out by English Heritage. Research on individual law courts was also carried out to supplement this survey. The records that are available through PastScape form part of the National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) which English Heritage holds. This includes records of many of the archaeological sites and historic buildings in England. These records help to inform the understanding of the significance of different types of heritage.
The Law Courts
The law courts that have been recorded during this project vary greatly in age and appearance and represent a wide range of England’s legal history.
The oldest building recorded for the project is Rutland Magistrates’ Court (Oakham) which is the oldest working court in the country. It has been in service since the 12th century and is the only surviving example of an early law court.
Ludlow Magistrates’ Court in Shropshire is located in a 14th century Guildhall with its original features still intact. The Guildhall, originally the hall of the Palmer’s Guild, was a central focus of the old market town of Ludlow throughout its history and is the oldest courthouse in Shropshire.
Ely Magistrates’ Court in Cambridgeshire was designed by the architect Charles Humfrey in 1821-1822 and is a rare example of an early 19th century purpose built courthouse. The building was designed in the Palladian style and many of its original internal fittings have survived.
Dewsbury County Court in Kirklees was designed by the architect Charles Reeves in 1858-1860 and is a rare example of an original county court that still occupies its original purpose built building.
The interior of Court One, The Guildhall (Ludlow Magistrates' Court), Ludlow (Ref. AA96 / 04726) © Crown copyright. English Heritage
The interior of the Court Room at Ely Magistrates' Court (Ref. BB94 / 03002) © Crown copyright. English Heritage
Many of the buildings had different primary functions before being converted into law courts. As a result of this many of the buildings recorded for the project reflect the changes needed to adapt older buildings for use in the modern judicial service. Consett County Court in County Durham is located in a former purpose built Telephone Exchange dating from the 1930s. The interior of the building was converted to a law court in the late 20th century to accommodate a District Judges’ chamber, a public waiting area and courtrooms. Gosforth Magistrates’ Court in Newcastle upon Tyne is situated in former accommodation for the Territorial Army and was converted to a law court in 1970.
Some of the buildings reflect a history of continual re-usage before becoming judicial buildings. The building housing Penzance County Court in Cornwall was built in 1833 as a residential house before being converted to an office during the Second World War and functioned as a Food Office. The building was then converted to a law court in 1966.
The interior of a cell block at Ely Magistrates' Court (Ref. BB94 / 02848) © Crown copyright. English Heritage
Graham, Clare, 2003. Ordering law: the architectural and social history of the English law court to 1914; Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Pollard, Richard, 2004: Silence in court: the future of the UK's historic law courts; London: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.