Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 10:47 UK

New 13m town courts set to open

By Wena Alun Owen
BBC news website

New court building in Caernarfon
The new building is opposite the county court

A new court is to open in Caernarfon, ending hundreds of years of justice in the shadow of its ancient castle.

The current court building dates from the mid-1860s, but it is believed a court of justice has been held on the site since the 13th Century.

The new £13m building will have two crown courts, a magistrates court and a multi-purpose courtroom.

Magistrates will sit there for the first time next week, and the Crown Court will move shortly afterwards.

The new building is typically lots of glass and pale woods, but also includes local materials such as bricks (from the town's now moth-balled brick works) Gwynedd slate and stone.

It occupies the site of the former Ysgol Segontium - or lower Sir Hugh Owen secondary school - opposite the town's county court and the fire station.

View from the dock
The view from the dock in one of the Crown Courts

A private finance initiative (PFI) is behind the project, with a private company building the facility and then renting it out.

It has been designed to cope with "any possible type of case we could imagine", according to Iolo Thomas the head of the courts in north Wales.

"This is the first time ever that Caernarfon has had two crown courts," he said.

"Previously if a long running case was envisaged then it had to be transferred elsewhere.

"And having the magistrates court next door is also and advantage," he added.

All areas are accessible for wheelchair users, and all the court rooms are fitted out with the latest in IT equipment.

"We'd simply outgrown the old facilities which was pretty much a rabbit warren," said Howard Lloyd, the area director of the north Wales court service.

Prison

The current Victorian building, which is Grade II listed, is being offered for sale.

Mr Lloyd describes the new building as "magnificent".

"Here there is enough space for consultation rooms, witnesses can be dealt with sufficiently," he added.

Mr Lloyd said it was difficult to gauge how a possible prison on the outskirts of Caernarfon would affect the new courts.

"There is a clear social need for a prison that is closer, and yes I would hope that we could take cases from outside the area if it was built," he said.

Gareth Haulfryn Williams is a JP and former Gwynedd county archivist, and will sit as chairman of the bench when the magistrates sit for the last time in the old court.

Mr Williams said from a historical point of view the move was sad.

Inside the new courtroom
The court had "outgrown" its facilities and the new building offers extra features

But he too thought the move was absolutely necessary to provide modern facilities for all court users.

As a JP since 1983 Mr Williams said the facilities at the old court were very basic "but it is 150 years old".

Despite its prominent location there have been no "Dr Crippen-type" cases at Caernarfon court, but there have been high profile cases, said Mr Williams.

One was the arson attack by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D J Williams in September 1936.

They had set fire to a farmhouse at Penyberth near Pwllheli in protest at turning the site into a new RAF bombing training school.

In more recent times, in 1993 there was the jailing of a man for sending letter-bombs through the post to prominent Welshmen.

Cells

A behind-the-scenes tour of the new building revealed a seemingly quite flexible arrangement of courts.

The magistrates and youth courts are on the lower floors whilst the two crown courts really are 'higher' courts situated at the top of the building.

The docks themselves are sealed from the court with bullet proof glass with metal grills on top.

Outside the court rooms there is a coffee shop and rooms for solicitors to chat privately to clients.

There is also a "quiet contemplation room" available for various uses including prayer.

The judge's room is furnished with a large desk and bookcases, and features one wall with red wallpaper with a stylised flower motif.

There is also a full-length mirror.

All the public areas are light and airy due to the large expanses of glass.

But it remains to be seen what the temperature will be like if the sun decides to shine all day, especially on the south side of the building.

The cells on the ground floor are another matter. Despite the modern building, after four flights of steps down to reach them, they felt dark and menacing.

Separated into youth, male and female sections, all cells were a simple room with built-in bench and a spy-hole in the wall.

Getting back to the reception area was something of a relief.

But then we discovered we had been accidentally locked in.

It was only for 10 minutes whilst a key was found - but it was not a nice experience.



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