Criminal Courts of Justice

The new Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin are proving to be a model building in both  design and execution. 

As the result of a ‘once in a century investment’, the criminal courts in Dublin have moved from beneath the iconic green dome of the Four Courts to an equally iconic dome-shaped building. The Court Service is delighted with the facility and Chief Justice John Murray says it is a ‘magnificent construction’.

Built at a cost of €140m, the complex is the largest courts project in Ireland since 1796 when the Four Courts was completed. It was procured using a design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) public private partnership (PPP), which assisted its speedy delivery. While it took 20 years to build James Gandon’s Four Courts, it only took 31 months to build the new Criminal Courts, which were delivered three months ahead of schedule. Under the terms of the PPP, when the Courts Service took possession of the building it was ‘ready-to-go’, with the first case held within a week of handover.

In appearance the design of the building is deliberately simple, admits architect Peter McGovern, but he also says: “It isn’t designed with a house style at play. It’s aesthetic is very particular to the functional requirements of the brief; this is architecture as engineering – the opposite of applying a stylistic approach.”

The building’s facade belies its size and the complexity of its interior. Although it is a ten-storey building, from the outside it looks as though it has only five-storey’s as the double-storey glass panelling used in the facade causes a trompe l’oeil and reduces one’s perception of the building’s scale. This is a deliberate ploy to ensure that the building fits well with its surroundings at the junction of Infirmary Road, Conyngham Road and Parkgate Street.

A vast part of the interior is taken up by a great hall that is four times larger than the great hall of the Four Courts and is of the same width, 40 metres, as the Panthenon. This hall, home to dozens of whispered conversations at a time, is described as ‘the physical and spiritual heart’ of the building by architect McGovern.  Surrounding the hall there are 22 courtrooms – 16 jury, six non-jury – accessed at ground level or via five-meter wide cantilevered balconies overlooking the hall at second floor, fourth floor and sixth floor levels.

In addition to its 22 courts, the building has over 600 other rooms, including: 26 judges’ chambers; 16 jury retiring rooms; 31 lawyer-client consultation rooms; a prisoner reception area and accommodation cells for up to 100 prisoners; a jury assembly area; offices for the Courts Service, for the DPP, for probation and welfare services; accommodation for victim support services, for the protection of vulnerable witnesses and for Gardaí; restaurants and dining areas for the public, for juries, for the judiciary and for court professionals ; a bail office and a law library, plus 72 car parking spaces on site. In addition to the public entrances to the courtrooms, the courts also have entrances for judges, juries and prisoners and, behind the scenes, there also needs to be separate circulation areas for these three groups.  McGovern’s solution to the complex layout required was to arrange the courtrooms in vertical stacks with segregated circulation cores between them.

The courtrooms themselves are deliberately ‘low-key’ in their appearance to encourage an atmosphere of dignity and calm. They are a big improvement on what was previously available for criminal prosecutions; few of the Four Court’s 21 courts were suitable for jury trials, with the result that ad hoc locations were being used that were often less than adequate for modern day trials. The new courtrooms enjoy great acoustic properties, good sight lines and are universally accessible with wheelchair access to the judges’ benches, the docks, the jury box, the witness stands and the public seating. There is an induction loop system for those with hearing aids and tactile signage for the visually impaired.

The new courtrooms are designed so that they can be configured to accommodate the various jurisdictions that deal with criminal matters: the District Court, the Circuit Criminal Court, the Central Criminal Court (High Court) and the Court of Criminal Appeal. These jurisdictions deal with about 400,000 criminal matters each year, with roughly half of these being dealt with in Dublin, so the new facility was badly needed, says John Mahon,  head of PPPs for the Courts Service. “In addition, the significant segregation and security problems arising from the running of criminal trials in the Four Courts had to be addressed and are resolved in the new building design.”


The Criminal Courts of Justice complex was procured using a design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) public-private partnership (PPP). The tendering competition, launched in April 2005, was won by a very Irish consortium comprising: Amber Infrastructure (an MBO of the Babcock & Brown PPP business) as bid managers and funders, PJ Hegarty & Sons as design and build contractors, and Henry J Lyons & Partners as architects. The investment was provided by International Public Partnerships, a UK-listed investment fund, with net assets valued over UK£420 million, managed and advised by Amber Infrastructure.

Amber’s Irish-born business development director Hugh Blaney had experience of successful PPP courts projects in the UK and in Canada and he believed he could put a distinctly Irish team together to build a distinctly-Irish courts building.

“We chose PJ Hegarty to work with us as design and build contractors because they were recommended to me as having a very good reputation for quality, as well as delivering projects on time and on budget,” said Blaney. “I went to look at their work at Fingal County Hall and I was very impressed. Also the business reputation and integrity of John Hegarty was a significant factor.”

Founded in 1925, PJ Hegarty is one of Ireland’s leading building and civil engineering companies and it is currently handling the construction of T2, the €600m second terminal at Dublin Airport, which has a peak workforce of 2,500 builders.

“Both Hegarty’s and I were keen to have Henry J Lyons Architects on board with us,” said Blaney. “We both recognised that Henry J Lyons had strong credentials in high quality, functional design and that Peter McGovern in particular, as lead architect, would enjoy the challenge of creating a distinctly Irish, but modern, courts facility.”

Before the PPP contract was awarded the consortium had to put a great deal of effort into the design of the building, the management of the project and its costings. For a 25 year period, the Court Service will pay an annual charge for the building and the PPP Company will have a licence to operate it, after which time the building reverts to the Court Service, who will then become responsible for its continued operation and maintenance.

“Although the PPP company’s involvement is for the next 25 years, we were really building for over a century, with the 100-year design life specified,” said Kevin O’Brien, the PJ Hegarty director responsible for the project. “The tender period from Oct 05 to Feb 06 was quite intensive from a design perspective, during which time a number of key decisions were made. Functionality was high on the agenda, as was buildability. Our circular design, which covered most of the site, was challenging to say the least. However we were confident that it was the correct response to both the site and the brief. Between being named preferred bidder in May 2006 and signing the contract in April 2007, planning permission was approved, and legal, technical and financial negotiations were completed. Design development continued during this phase, which helped us to commence an enabling package immediately after signing the contract.

“The enabling works threw up a few surprises in the excavations – the army bomb disposal team were required to remove five sea-mines and some phosphorus.  One of the biggest challenges that we had was to divert a culvert, which was taking surface water from the Phoenix Park, and divert it along the periphery of the site. We also had to deal with the fact that there is a 10 metre difference in height between the northern and southern boundaries of the 2.5 acre site.

“Every part of the 0.95 hectare site was built on, which caused logistical challenges throughout the construction. Four tower cranes, supplemented with three mobile cranes, including a 500T mobile to erect the roof trusses, plus a 38m-boom static concrete pump, all combined to support the 500+ workforce and 120 subcontract companies during the 31-month construction period. Meticulous logistical planning from the site management team ensured that access and egress to the site, at this busy city centre junction, was handled without impacting either the site or the local area”

“Large concrete pours were rare on the project, due to the multi-levelled segregated circulation system required for prisoners, the public, the juries and the judiciary,” said O’Brien. “Most of the internal walls in the 625 rooms are reinforced concrete for reasons of acoustics and security. Because the building is circular in design, most of these walls are curved or splayed in some fashion. Once we got a routine going, we were pouring up to 300 linear metres of wall per week. Room tolerances were also a challenge as we were contracted to provide rooms that were within 1% of the area specified in our design.

“To give the judiciary and other members of the Courts Service an opportunity to better comment on our design, before the structure was complete and well before fit-out commenced, we built a full-scale mock-up of one of the courtrooms, complete with ICT, a judge’s antechamber and a jury retiring room. Once the final interior design for the courtrooms was agreed, fit-out works were completed over the next 10 months.

“There hasn’t been a circular court’s complex like this built before anywhere, as far as we are aware. I don’t know why because I think we have shown that it is a layout that can work very well.

Indeed the success of the design has piqued international interest: the criminal courts have already been visited by court officials from the Gulf States, the Balkans and Scandinavia. Chief Justice Murray said: “It will undoubtedly be an international reference point for the construction of such complexes in the future.”


A large part of the building’s distinctive appearance is due to its glazed facade, which provides a more reflective surface than the copper of the Four Court’s iconic dome. The facade is composed of three layers – at its centre is a mesh, or a bronze-anodized aluminium screen sandwiched between two layers of glazing. The inner layer is unseen from the exterior, but the outer layer is composed of a series of glazing panels that lean out from the building in a saw tooth arrangement. This is chiefly for acoustic reasons, preventing external noise from interfering with court business. While much of the building’s appearance is defined by the use of the bronze mesh, its use is primarily practical rather than decorative, says McGovern. “The facade is born out of the same rigorous attention to functionality as the building layout.  Acoustic separation of the court room from the street was an important consideration made difficult by the brief requirement to introduce natural light into the courts as much as possible by carefully engineering the perforation of the mesh using computer modelling, we created a glare control device, a veil that harmonises and unifies the building that makes a singular impression and that disguises the various windows and openings behind it, but that also acts as a security screen because it prevents views into the courts from outside.

“The mesh also captures solar heat gain between the outer and inner glass exceptionally well and the trapped heat forms a blanket around the building, keeping the courtrooms warm and reducing the amount of energy required for heating. There are vents at the top and bottom of the facade that can be opened during the summer months, allowing cool air to be drawn from below and warm air to escape from above, thus reducing the amount of air-conditioning/cooling that might be needed by the courts in hot weather. The building is only in its infancy, but the system has already proved its worth: during the recent cold snap, night-time temperatures at the location fell to below -5˚C, but the interior temperature of the court building fell only by one degree.”


Future Prospects

The public side of the PPP partnership was chiefly managed by the Courts Service’s CEO Brendan Ryan and Head of PPPs John Mahon, with assistance from the Office of Public Works, the National Development Finance Agency and Jacobs Engineering, who were appointed client’s engineers.

Jacobs project manager James Gilsenan said the building was already a local and national landmark that featured regularly as a backdrop to television news reports.  He said: “It is also a landmark in the PPP market with its very visible success in the delivery ahead of schedule of an architecturally iconic public building. The public and private sector teams were focussed on achieving excellence and motivated to work together to progress the project to completion. A key factor was the detailed definition of requirements prior to the signing of the contract – it was hard work at the time, but it paved the way for a fast construction program that subsequently delivered the building three months ahead of schedule. We look forward to similar success with current PPP projects, such as the National Convention Centre.”

The project has certainly given Amber, in its International Public Partnerships fund, a hunger to pursue other PPP projects and Blaney says he will gladly work with PJ Hegarty and Henry J Lyons Architects again. “We are looking at Thornton Hall, we are looking at the proposed oncology units, we are looking at the third level education PPPs,” he said. “Amber and those it advises are looking to invest in quality PPP projects. Currently 60% of investments made by International Public Partnerships are in Europe, 30% are in Australia and 10% in Canada.

“Personally, I would like to do more business in Ireland: It is where I live, it is where my family are. But what we in the private sector need is deal flow, we need a clear definition of the political priorities around what infrastructure is needed. The private sector understands the financial constraints that the public sector faces at the moment but bidding for PPP projects is an expensive business so once projects are released to the private sector there is equal responsibility on both the public and private sector to deliver. The National Development Finance Agency has considerable expertise in running public procurement and can use PPP as a cost effective way to stimulate the construction sector and indeed the wider economy. With the Criminal Courts of Justice, we have not only shown that procurement by PPP can be a success, but PPPs can deliver infrastructure that exceeds expectations.”