Finding a new anchorage: the travels of Medway County Court

Image: Chris Fletcher / MV Ross Revenge - Radio Caroline ship / CC BY-SA 2.0

Back in the day I used to occasionally darken the doors of Medway County Court (now including the Family Court). My abiding memory of the place is probably similar to the memory of most lawyers about any court: hours and hours waiting around for your hearing to come on.

There was one upside of waiting around at Medway. Sitting next to the river from which it takes its name, the court had a good view across the water, and I often used to gaze longingly at the freedom it represented, including the ships, boats and barges moored beside the court. If I recall correctly, the (in)famous MV Ross Revenge (above) was one of those ships during the time I was a visitor.

The views from the court waiting area are quite different now. In fact, I read today that from next week the court will be sitting at two very separate locations (hence my writing this post).

And in 16 months' time the views will change again. The court will then once again sit next to the river, albeit slightly downstream. Whether it will feature a view across the river, I don't know. For the sake of users, I hope so.

So why the peripateticism (is that a word?)?

Well, when I went there the court sat at Anchorage House, which was leased by HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The lease was due to expire in January this year. However, following negotiations with the landlord of the property a lease extension was agreed to the end of June 2021, at which point HMCTS were required to vacate the property.

No problem, you may think. It was obviously known long beforehand that the lease would expire. Surely, HMCTS would have arrangements in place to move to new permanent premises in June?

Sadly, no.

New premises have been found, with the similarly maritime-themed name of 'Gun Wharf' (the rather militaristic name is because it sits close to the old Royal Naval Dockyard). But they won't be ready for another 16 months.

Meanwhile, the court will find a home in not one but two hotels: the Holiday Inn Rochester (where it has been sitting since June), and the Hilton Maidstone, where it will also be sitting from next week. The latter venue, you may have noticed, is in an entirely separate town, which is some nine miles away.

All of which will surely cause considerable inconvenience for court staff, judges, lawyers, and all others who have to attend the court including, of course, the unfortunate litigants.

Now, I know that the story of the relocation(s) is somewhat complicated (if you wish you can read the whole sorry tale in this HMCTS Consultation response), and I don't want to criticise anyone personally, but surely it would have been possible with a little forethought to make a final decision as to whether to retain or do away with Medway County Court sufficiently in advance of the expiry of the lease, so that appropriate arrangements were in place (either to relocate to new premises in Medway or to merge with another county court (i.e. in Maidstone)) when the lease ran out?

The one thing in all of this that does make me happy, despite the fact that I have no stake in the matter myself as I am no longer practising, is that the Medway Towns will retain its own court. The idea that Maidstone (population 113,000) should have a county court and the Medway Towns (population 280,000) should not always seemed a little absurd to me.