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Judges find lodgings lack home comforts: Excellent butler, pity about the elephants

ELEPHANT flatulence and 'naff' decor were among the criticisms yesterday of some of the temporary lodgings used by judges at a cost to taxpayers of almost pounds 4m a year.

Some of the most senior legal figures in Britain - past and present - gave their verdicts on the free accommodation provided for High Court judges to use when they hear cases outside London.

The Lord Chancellor announced on Wednesday that his department was to review the existing system, whereby the state maintains and staffs - often with butlers and cooks - 32 historic lodgings in England and Wales. A furore was caused after it emerged that the cost of keeping judges in several of the properties was more than pounds 10,000 a week.

Previous High Court judges yesterday defended the system and insisted that it offered good value for money.

In a straw poll of judges who have stayed at the lodgings, the most unpopular venue was Maidstone in Kent, which costs on average more than pounds 4,300 a week. The most coveted location was Winchester, Hampshire, which is situated opposite the cathedral. The butler at Liverpool was described as the 'best in England'.

The main complaint about Maidstone was about the furniture and style of decoration. 'They are a bit vulgar and naff. Not really to the taste of an elderly gentleman - or anyone for that matter,' said one former High Court judge. It was also condemned for being too large and situated four miles out of town. 'There's no time to nip back for lunch,' explained another judge.

Chester lodgings - average weekly cost pounds 5,658 - scored low on the popularity stakes because of its close proximity to the zoo. 'It's terrible, you can hear the elephants farting at night,' said a former senior member of the judiciary.

The Northampton residence was castigated for being 'dowdy, small, and noisy'. A judge said: 'It's a pretty awful place at the back of the courts. A lot of the rooms were really cramped.' Sir Frederick Lawton, a former High Court and Appeal Court judge, said: 'It's not a very attractive place. It's in a square and is too noisy and small.'

The long distance from London and the heavy work- load made Manchester an unpopular choice. Despite having a butler, cook, housekeeper and cleaners, it was considered by some judges as being 'somewhere in the dark ages'. It did, however, get bonus points for being well heated.

Birmingham lodgings, which are used more than any other property on the circuit, were described as 'horribly hygenic' and modern.

At the top of the popularity league was Winchester. Judges were particularly impressed by the attractive city and the lodgings, an 18th-century town house, being situated next to the cathedral. 'It's a beautiful, quiet area and you can drive back to London on Friday night and don't have to leave home until Monday morning,' was one view.

The staff at Liverpool received glowing recommendations. 'It's a very well run house, everyone is excellent - the butler is the best in England,' said a judge.

The upkeep for the Georgian house which was built in a park is about pounds 140,000 a year, but it is well used and averages about pounds 1,800 a week for each judge.

The only negative comment about the property was it being in Liverpool, where there are a lot of crimes to be tried.

Lincoln, which cost more than pounds 10,000 a week to run, received the judicial stamp of approval. The Regency house has large, comfortable rooms, and was described as an 'asset' to the nation.

The cost of a two-bedroomed suite at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly is about pounds 6,000 a week.

A beautiful collection of silver and several original painting were some of the attractions of Leicester - average cost pounds 6,466 - as well as fine views of the city's castle.

The comfortable furniture and proximity to London helped push St Albans into the top five, while the immaculately kept and spacious garden at Leeds was also worthy of mention.

Sir Frederick Lawton, a former High Court judge, said the judiciary needed large, private, and safe accommodation to carry out their work. 'The lodgings offer value for money and ensure that justice is done in all parts of the realm.'

Sir Bernard Caulfield, another former High Court judge, added: 'To keep someone in a hotel would be impossible. You need a study, someone to prepare your meals and look after your robes, and complete privacy. The bill for that at a hotel would be huge.'

------------------------------------------- THE TOP FIVE ------------------------------------------- Lodging Annual cost Winchester pounds 133,053 Liverpool pounds 139,557 Lincoln pounds 61,762 Leicester pounds 38,796 St Albans pounds 173,260

------------------------------------------- THE BOTTOM FIVE ------------------------------------------- Lodging Annual cost Manchester pounds 267,866 Chester pounds 136,784 Birmingham pounds 290,402 Northampton pounds 20,669 Maidstone pounds 124,845 -------------------------------------------

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