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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 10:23 GMT
Grand designs
By Chris Summers
BBC News

See how Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court will be transformed into the new UK Supreme Court

As building contractors prepare to start work on the UK's first Supreme Court, arguments about its purpose are giving way to a row about its design.

Ask any tour guide in Washington DC and they will be able to direct you to the US Supreme Court. Make the same enquiry of a London guide about the UK version and they would be left scratching their head.

But that may be about to change.

Construction work is due to begin in March on the new UK Supreme Court, following a blueprint designed by a team of top British architects. The plan is for the new court to emerge, like a £30m butterfly, from the chrysalis that is Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court.

Built in 1913, the Grade II* building, which sits unnoticed and largely unloved on one side of Westminster's Parliament Square, presents a neo-Gothic edifice. It was, until 1965, home to the now defunct Middlesex County Council.

Protesters outside the US Supreme Court
Landmark: The US Supreme Court

The site's new role is wrapped up with the government's House of Lords reform. It is due to be transformed into a home fit for Britain's ultimate arbiters of justice, with its first case expected to be heard in the autumn of 2009.

Why do we need a UK Supreme Court?

At present the outcome of criminal and civil cases can be appealed to the House of Lords if a point of law needs clarifying. That will be taken over by the Supreme Court and the country's 12 top judges will be Justices of the Supreme Court rather than Law Lords.

Crucially, the justices will not have to be peers.

"[The Law Lords and their successors] are the cream of the crop, hugely learned and have survived very tough careers in the law to get where they are," says Brendan Keith, House of Lords judicial office.

The Law Lords in 2005 © Malcolm Crowther, House of Lords
The Law Lords, who are being phased out

In the US, the make-up of the Supreme Court is heavily partisan. But Lord Lester QC, a Liberal Democrat peer and one of the Supreme Court's most enthusiastic proponents, says a new appointments procedure will avoid the dangers of political influence.

But Conservatives believe the project is "unnecessary and unwanted". Alan Duncan, the then shadow constitutional affairs secretary, has said that the reforms are change for the sake of it.

Lost heritage

The Bill establishing the court was finally forced through in 2005. But if the legal debate has been put to rest, the same cannot be said for the architectural debate.

The pressure group Save Britain's Heritage is mounting a fierce rearguard action to save Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court from this radical conversion.

The group's secretary, Adam Wilkinson, says he is "deeply disturbed" by the proposed changes to what he describes as a "fantastic building. It is the best Gothic revival building of its period."

Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court
Site was home to Westminster Bridewell prison 1618-1884
Guildhall designed by JS Gibson, completed 1913
Home of Middlesex County Council 1913-65
Restored, modernised and re-opened as crown court in 1989
It will close in March 2007, replaced by UK Supreme Court
Cases will be reassigned to other London courts

The current architects - Feilden and Mawson - are "good... but the brief they have been given is wrong. They have been told to trash the exuberant interior and shove the magnificent furniture and fittings down in the basement."

Save Britain's Heritage has secured a judicial review of the decision to grant planning permission - a move that could delay the court.

David Wilshire, a Conservative MP who has taken a great interest in the plans, welcomes Feilden and Mawson's plans. The building works poorly as a modern court, he says.

Lightwells, which originally brought natural light in, have since been filled in, making the building "dark and dank". The court is also one of only a handful in the country not to have a secure compound for prison vans, which must park in the street outside.

Ancient name

Mr Wilshire, whose Spelthorne seat is one of 25 in what was once Middlesex, only asks that the name not be airbrushed from history.

"Middlesex, the kingdom of the Middle Saxons, has been around for 1,000 years and the Guildhall symbolises that civic pride. Its place in history should be recognised and they should not touch the coat of arms or the war memorials of the Middlesex Regiment which are inside."

Chairs at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court
Conservationists want to keep these splendid chairs ©James Mortimer

Architect Hugh Feilden, who leads the design team, says the lightwells would be restored and a cafe and exhibition centre will be added as part of a plan to encourage "open justice".

"The building's position on Parliament Square is quite symbolic," he says "It represents the judiciary and on the other sides are the executive (the Treasury), Parliament and faith (Westminster Abbey)."

Though he sympathises with Save's concerns, the "long-term benefits to the building far outweigh the damage done by removing the furniture."

Save has asked for a judicial review of Westminster City Council's decision to grant planning permission. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs says the "worst they can do is delay the project."

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