If Oliver Sneath and Dorota Szafalowicz have their way, the former Spalding Magistrates Court will be turned into their dream home over the next five years.
The couple, both employed in the food industry, officially became the court’s new owners precisely three weeks ago after sealed tender bids were invited for the building by the Ministry of Justice.
It took 11 months of viewings, bidding and negotiating to seal the deal, but now Oliver and Dorota can call themselves the “wards of court” – in Spalding at least.
Dorota said: “We were looking for somewhere to live together that was central, between Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, as Oliver works in Bicker and I work in Ely.
“We wanted a big project, something we could really make our own.
“Then suddenly we noticed a “For Sale” sign outside the magistrates court and after that, there was a newspaper article which said something like ‘Looking for a new home?’.”
Spalding Magistrates Court, a grade II listed building designed by Sleaford-based architect Charles Kirk, was built in 1843 by Booth and Walker of Bramley, near Leeds, in West Yorkshire.
At one time, it heard quarter sessions (criminal cases) four times a year before justices of the peace or recorders until they were replaced by crown courts in 1972.
Oliver said: “I like its location in the middle of Spalding and there’s quite a lot of space around it.
“But until it was up for sale, not many people paid attenton to it and when we bought the building, some people asked us ‘Where is it?’”
We knew there were other applicants for the property and a charity was set up to preserve the building - but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do as wellDorota Szafalowicz
Up until January 2014, the court mainly heard cases without a jury (so-called petty sessions) involving minor offences dealt with by volunteer justices of the peace.
But a decision was taken in September 2013 to move cases to Boston Magistrates Court, also designed by Charles Kirk, and Spalding Magistrates Court was put on the market in January 2016.
Dorota said: “We first came to see the building in February 2016, then again in March and May, before we submitted our tender on June 10.
“It was an informal tender process, with sealed bids, which was pretty scary because whilst we were used to commercial things, we’d never been through tendering for a commercial building before.
“But it was really important to us to see what was going to happen to the building so that the public would get the best out of it.”
Oliver added: “We didn’t hear anything until the middle of August and the only time we had second thoughts was when we asked ourselves ‘What if we don’t win the tender?’
“We put all of our other projects on hold to go full-on with the tender from June 10 and we were really worried when we didn’t get an answer until August.”
The Ministry of Justice, through Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, had estimated that it would have cost an average of £27,000 a year to keep the court operational.
In comparison, its market value was indepedently assessed to be £200,000 which would be included in total savings of £340,000 over a five-year period between 2014 and 2019.
Dorota said: “Everything took so much time and there were a lot of meetings with G4S and the Ministry of Justice which were pretty stressful.
“But they were really working with us and nothing was really too difficult for them.
“When we bought the building, there were two different reactions from people.
“One group said ‘This is too much’ and ‘Why couldn’t you buy a normal house?’, whereas other people said ‘This is really amazing’ and ‘We really admire your determination’.”
Oliver and Dorota finally got their hands on the keys to the court five days before Christmas, on Tuesday, December 20. There are still change of use details – from “Sessions House to residential”– to finalise, as well as Listing Building Consent details.
But Oliver said: “We’re very passionate about the history of Lincolnshire, the town of Spalding and its magistrates court which we do have long-term plans of maintaining.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to where we are now, but this is just the beginning of the journey.”
The new owners of Spalding Magistrates Court are well aware of the interest in it, particularly after the unsuccessful bid by the specially-formed Spalding Court House Charity.
Dorota said: “We knew that there were other applicants for the property, including a charity which was set up to preserve the building.
“But that’s exactly what we’re trying to do as well and we’ve put a lot of our savings into this building to renovate it and make it better.
“I love its architecture, the fireplaces, library of law books, leather chairs and its many other tiny details.
“The clock is amazing and the radiators are beautiful, but it’s not as if someone just handed them to us on a plate.”
Oliver added: “We’re both passionate about the building and there are things that have been here since the court was built.
“But the only time frame we’ve put on our plans is that in five years time, we want to be able to look back and see everything we’ve done with it.”