Broken heating, sewage, mould, asbestos and leaking toilets and roofs are among the problems encountered by solicitors in courts in England and Wales, a survey by the Law Society has found.
Approximately two-thirds of respondents said they had experienced delays in cases being heard in the last year owing to the physical state of the courts, with their professional body warning that it is contributing to the large backlog.
Other problems identified by solicitors included lack of private spaces for client consultations, broken air conditioning, lack of drinking water or other refreshments, poor technology, broken lifts and other accessibility problems, particularly affecting clients and advocates with disabilities,
Less than a fifth of respondents considered court buildings as being fit for purpose“to a large extent”.
A solicitor said of Thames magistrates court in east London: “The walls are falling in, tiles falling off, the roof leaks. The consultation rooms are not private and lots of seating is broken. Inside court seven is particularly bleak. No air con. Often heating broken. Last year sewage came up into the cells it took a day for it to be decided to close the cells.”
Another said: “I’ve had a piece of an air conditioning unit fall on my head at a magistrates court a few years ago and the ceiling fan it fell from still hadn’t been mended when I last went.”
The Law Society invited 9,663 solicitors with higher rights of audience to complete the online survey, with 446 answering all of the questions and 135 some of them.
Almost half said they had experienced cases being adjourned because of the state of the courts, and a quarter had cases that had been transferred to a different venue. Delays and cancellations were said have left clients in limbo, denied access to justice and wasted time and costs.
Writing about a London crown court, a solicitor said: “Everything is falling apart. Chairs and floors are held together with gaffer tape. Ceilings leak, toilets leak and fail to flush. Mould everywhere.”
There were several accounts of broken heating and poor air conditioning, meaning that some courts were too hot during the summer and freezing during the winter.
Wood Green crown court, in north London, reportedly closed due to broken heating on Tuesday while delays or cancellations due to the cold were also reported at several other courts last week.
One survey respondent, said that non-functioning air conditioning during summer at Southwark crown court led to “illness from overheating of jurors and staff”.
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Lubna Shuja, chair of the Law Society, said: “The poor state of court buildings across England and Wales is a contributor to the huge backlog of court cases and a stark illustration of the lack of investment in our justice system,
“Decades of damage cannot be reversed overnight but urgent action can halt this decline before it’s too late.”
The report was published on Monday, the same day as the Law Society launched a plan to tackle the backlog of cases, which stands at more than 62,000 in the crown courts. Investing in buildings, staff and judges was one of five recommendations. The others were properly funding legal aid, keeping cases out of courts, installing reliable technology and better data collection to highlight where investment is needed.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said it had announced the largest funding increase for the justice system in more than a decade. “We’ve digitised a raft of court services since 2016 and are investing £175m in court maintenance to ensure they are fit for the 21st century,” the spokesperson said.