Further work due to ease problems at Cork court's temporary home

The impressive 1930s Italianate facade may be listed for protection but behind its ornate frontage, the temporary Cork Circuit…

The impressive 1930s Italianate facade may be listed for protection but behind its ornate frontage, the temporary Cork Circuit Court building at Camden Quay is undergoing a major refurbishment in preparation for court sessions next month.

The move to Camden Quay earlier this year was necessitated by the £7 million refurbishment of the Washington Street courthouse, which has been serving Cork city and county in various forms since first being built in the 1830s.

Although the building was subsequently damaged by fire in 1890 and reopened in 1895 following major reconstruction, Washington Street courthouse has remained substantially unaltered for more than 100 years. While Cork District Court transferred to the former Model School in Anglesea Street four years ago, Cork Circuit Court had remained at Washington Street, where increasing numbers of civil and criminal as well as family law matters were heard.

Cork Circuit Court continued to sit in Washington Street during phase one of the renovation - the 18-month refurbishment of the building's exterior - but it has now moved to Camden Quay during phase two, the renovation of its interior.


Included in phase two is the restoration of the splendid two main courtrooms where the magnificent wooden panelling will be renewed. Proper consultation rooms will be built, though the antique bar room will retain its beamed arched roofing.

According to Cork city architect, Mr Neil Hegarty, both the main courtrooms, Courts 1 and 2, are listed rooms. The magnificent marble hallway with its great dome and pillared balcony is to be retained.

"At the moment we're in the process of consulting with groups using the courthouse: barristers, solicitors, prison officers as well as people involved in the witness support programme and the rape crisis centre, to find out what their needs are," he said.

Exploratory site investigation on the building is also continuing so the contract cannot yet be put out to tender. But it's expected that phase two will take at least two years to complete.

Included in the move to Camden Quay is Cork Circuit Criminal Court - the second-busiest circuit criminal court in the State, which has seen its business treble from around 90 cases in 1994 to an estimated 270 cases this year.

Among the more noted cases to be heard at the court in recent years was that of an Englishman, Gordon Richards, jailed for 17 years for possessing £47 million worth of cocaine for supply on board the Sea Mist in Cork Harbour on September 19th.

Last year, Cork Circuit Criminal Court hosted one of the longest-running criminal trials in the history of the State when a Swiss woman, Maria-Bernadette Jehle, was jailed for five years for money-laundering after 47 days of hearing.

And this year, the court again featured prominently, first when two cocaine traffickers, John O'Toole and Michael Tune, were jailed for possessing £41 million worth of cocaine for supply in Kinsale in September 1998.

A few weeks later, Cork Circuit Criminal Court was again in the headlines when Edward Judd Scanlon, described as being "in the upper echelons of the Irish drug scene", was given the longest sentence for a drugs offence by an Irish court: 22 years.

Scanlon was sentenced in June in Washington Street, by which time all the civil courts and staff had transferred to Camden Quay. First impressions suggested the initial conversion work left much to be desired.

A High Court judge, Mr Justice Declan Budd, who sits on the courts accommodation committee, inspected the Camden Quay premises while sitting in Cork in June. He drew up a detailed report on the state of the building. He addressed concerns which ranged from the minor and easily remedied to the more serious, which called into question the suitability of the building - in its then state - as a courthouse, particularly for criminal trials.

Among the concerns he raised was the issue of proper prisoner access, pointing out that those in custody have to be brought into holding cells through the judges' car-park and into court through public areas. "The security risks are obvious," he noted.

The facilities for jurors were equally unsatisfactory and he noted that the courtrooms were unsuitable for jury trials as jurors could hear legal argument going on in the courtroom when they should be cloistered away out of earshot.

He also raised the matter of acoustics. Air conditioning, rattling rain on the galvanised roof and nearby construction work made it difficult to hear cases and while microphones were available, they were no substitute for proper acoustics.

Sewerage problems, including smells in both courtrooms and judges' chambers, where there were open drains, also drew comment and he warned on the dangers of people developing throat, nose and sinus problems.

The lack of ventilation in both the judges' chambers and the jury rooms drew comparisons with rabbit hutches. "Airless and windowless hutches will cause unwell and demoralised judges and disaffected juries," he observed.

The flooring, too, at Camden Quay left a lot to be desired and Mr Justice Budd noted that there had been a number of falls on the premises already. One courtroom had such "a formidable list" that he dubbed it "the Titanic courtroom".

He also suggested it should be easy to install courtroom doors that didn't bang like "swing doors in a wild west saloon", while he also recommended a proper bar room for counsel and barristers as well as a separate and proper solicitors' room.

According to a Department of Justice spokesman, Camden Quay, like Washington Street and all other courthouses in the State, is, under 1935 legislation, the responsibility of the local authority, in this case, Cork Corporation.

Cork Corporation is leasing the Camden Quay property from North Gate Investments on behalf of the Department of Justice and has all the responsibility for conversion and alterations necessary to make it suitable as a courthouse, he said.

However, a second phase of upgrading just begun on the four courtrooms and other facilities at Camden Quay will address and rectify the problems identified by Mr Justice Budd, the Department spokesman said.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times