Gove goes to war with judges over posh digs

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By Jonathan Ames on

In his first battle with legal profession, new Justice Secretary wants to flog mansions and penthouse lodgings for Crown Court judges on the road

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It has only taken Michael Gove about six weeks to pick his first fight with the legal profession, and he’s aimed high by taking on Crown Court judges.

Last week, the Ministry of Justice slapped criminal law specialist solicitors in the face by confirming the second round of legal aid rate cuts. But that was a battle started by Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, with the current Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor simply administering the coup de grace.

Now — in the wake of the Conservatives’ shock general election victory — Gove wants to carve his own initials on the profession’s back, and he’s decided to hit judges where they live … literally.

Or at least where they live when they are hearing criminal trials away from their permanent homes. According to a report in today’s Times newspaper, Gove has instructed officials to cast a critical eye over the cost of judicial lodgings and other on-the-road expenses, raising the prospect that their honours might have to get used to the delights of the Premier Inn chain.

The Times (£) report pointed out that the taxpayer is currently coughing up about £5 million annually to operate a collection of historic residences for judges away from home, ranging from mansions to penthouse flats. But The Times said the government reckons those posh digs stand empty for up to two thirds of every year.

The paper said the most expensive of those temporary residences was in Bristol. In a city where the average purchase cost of a semi-detached house is about £261,000, the taxpayer forked out more than £550,000 last year to house judges.

Likewise, in Leeds, where the average house costs £170,000, The Times reported that judges are housed in a penthouse flat at an annual cost of more than £443,000. And in Liverpool, where the average house sets punters back only slightly more than £100,000, the MoJ has been splashing out more than £426,000 annually on judicial digs.

Bumping up the costs, pointed out the newspaper, is a judicial taste for the high life. It is understood that some 60 domestic staff are spread across the MoJ property portfolio, including butlers, chefs, housekeepers and cleaners.

Indeed, the accommodation used to be even plusher, reported the paper:

Once they were like gentlemen’s clubs where judges were waited on hand and foot and all their needs were catered for — from having their shoes polished to their favourite tipple being provided.

But Grayling started the belt tightening, dispensing with chauffer-driven motorcars and, two years ago, knocking on the head the judicial subscription to Sky Television.