Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life - Samuel Johnson
I trust you will forgive my contribution to the overuse of this quotation. The fact is that whilst it is undeniably true that this metropolis contains so much of interest that boredom is impossible, I have always found that the same could be said for my chosen vocation: the law. For in law, as in London, all life is found. It catalogues the collective experience of humanity in all its actions; everything from property to personhood, equity to equality, loyalty to love is analysed and debated. It should come as no surprise then that I have chosen to use a spell of enforced idleness to observe some of this process in action. Whilst I could no doubt regale you with tales from the trials I have witnessed – and indeed I may do so on some future occasion – for the moment I will restrict myself to their venue, the majestic complex of buildings on the Strand; the Royal Courts of Justice.
Located on the Strand, just to the east of Aldwych, the RCJ as it is known, is the site of the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal, collectively known as the Superior Courts1, which in turn are the product of the late nineteenth century Judicature Acts which amalgamated the old courts of the Queen's Bench, Chancery and Common Pleas. These courts hear the most prestigious, notorious, high value and generally important civil cases in England and Wales. They also hear appeals from the criminal courts in cases ranging from granting bail to quashing convictions. In the main building itself, these are divided, with the courtrooms on the left as you enter dealing with the civil cases, and those on the right with the criminal.
It was not always so. Until the RCJ opened in 1882, the High Court sat in the medieval Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster; the same building in which parliament sits today. These were not ideal surroundings, famously there were little or no dividers between the individual courts and certainly no walls – barristers occasionally having to shout to make themselves heard above the hubbub of multiple cases. Although there were other locations in London suitable for high level trials (the literary may recall Lincoln's Inn making an appearance as the Court of Chancery in the opening scenes of Bleak House), it was clear by the 1860s that this state of affairs should not be allowed to continue.
The site at the end of the Strand was chosen and the buildings situated there demolished. These were slums of a sort that were then common in this area of London and sadly history does not record what happened to the people living there. The design of the building itself was chosen by a competition in which eleven artists submitted their ideas and Parliament chose between them. This was at the height of the Victorian Gothic Revival and it is therefore not a surprise that the design they chose was by the noted architect of churches, Mr George Edmund Street. His vision was something between a cathedral, a royal palace and a fairytale castle, all arches, halls, galleries and turrets, festooned with statues and mosaics; an intricate temple to justice.
Despite a serious masons strike that required some of the builders to be quartered in the cellars of the building itself, and going over budget by thousands of pounds, eventually running out of money, the finished building certainly lives up to Mr Street's plans, dominating the skyline of the Strand. These days on walking through the visitor's entrance, one can expect an airport style scanner and a frisking if you carry non removable metal. Through this however, one reaches the main hall in which bewigged and robed barristers mingle with their suited clients or study the daily cause listings, displayed in two wooden cases in the centre of the hall.2
The Main Hall itself resembles a cathedral, with high windows displaying the crests of Lord Chancellors past. The floor is covered with decorative mosaics, originally intended to reach the windows, high on the walls, but ultimately Parliament was unwilling o pay for this extravagance. I have to say that I agree with them – even for the Victorians, it would have been somewhat busy and garish. Further decoration is provided by the portraits and statues of eminent jurists. Of particular note are the two red-robed 'Fire Judges' at the far end of the hall. These men sat free of charge for almost two years following the Great Fire of 1666 in order to resolve the massive property cases that arose in that time. As a scholar of legal history, I myself am drawn to the statue of William Blackstone, an eminent eighteenth century judge, and the author of Blackstone's Commentaries; a lengthy and masterful treatise covering all of English law at its time of writing.
At either side of the hall are the stairs leading to the courts themselves and I will discuss these momentarily. For the moment however, I wish to draw your attention to the stairs at the back, beyond the Fire Judges. These lead to an area known as The Crypt, again a testament to Mr Street's previous vocation as a designer of cathedrals. Four of the arches are pillars, adorned with spiralling designs that would probably interest conspiracy nuts. In fact, these embellishments are little more than artistic graffiti, cut by German masons brought in whilst the locals were on strike. For their safety, they were kept within the confines of the courts and understandably got bored. To alleviate this, they went beyond the original designs and added a little extra creativity to the surroundings. When the locals returned, in the best traditions of British workmanship they decided that to copy the German designs on all the pillars would be more than their job's worth and left them blank. Another point of interest in The Crypt is generally only noticed when it is pointed out. Mr Street was a very religious man and held that only God should create the perfect. He therefore incorporated one imperfection in his design and consequently, one of The Crypt's pillars does not reach its pedestal.
Returning to the main hall, now facing the entrance, on the left and right there are staircases leading to the first floor courts, criminal and civil respectively. These, one may enter at will, regardless of whether you have any connection with the proceedings taking place. This is with the exception of some private cases, generally those involving families or children. The courts themselves look like any others of their era – wood panelled rooms with a high bench at the front for the judges facing the desks from which barristers make their cases. There may also be a barred dock if the court is in the criminal division. Behind these, or sometimes to one side is the public gallery where visitors sit to watch the cases; I have always found it disturbing that these wooden benches lack the graffiti a lifetime of education has accustomed me to. A side note on protocol: when entering a sitting court, be very quiet, make certain your phone is off and will not turn itself on again for alarms and such, and give a short nod or bow to the bench on entering or leaving. The court stands when the judge enters and leave and you should too.
Outside the courts and beyond the Main Hall there lies a rabbit warren of corridors and galleries that stretch for quite literally miles – strangely symbolic of the labyrinthine qualities of the Common Law. In these one may see yet more paintings and statues of the eminent, including a bust of Lord Woolf constructed entirely from – of all things – coat hangers. This obviously profoundly symbolises something about the architect of the legal reforms of the late twentieth century, but I do not for the life of me know what. One may also view a display of legal costume, including the different robes and wigs of the bar and bench.
There are numerous rooms in emanating from these corridors. Not courts, they are not generally open to the public, but it is not uncommon for these rooms to be where cases are truly decided. They include the chambers of the Masters of the Bench, judicial officers with the power to make procedural decisions, grant injunctions, hear minor cases and resolve minor disputes. Outside the doors there are red and green 'traffic lights' that – in theory – ensure that those within are undisturbed. These rooms are joined by a succession of minor offices, legal libraries and alcoves in which worried looking litigants and exasperated lawyers wait and work. The centre of these rooms and hallways of legal life are two large rooms known as the Bear Garden. Originally robing rooms for the barristers, these are situated outside the Masters' chambers and function as waiting rooms. Their odd name derives from the loud informal arguments that traditionally took place in them as barristers attempted to unofficially resolve cases amongst themselves.
There are of course yet more rooms of public amenity; a Citizen's Advice Bureau provides free legal guidance to litigants, and the Personal Support Unit offers emotional support and practical information to those who find themselves entangled in legal process. There are also toilets, a souvenir shop and a café, although I have to say that unless you have a good reason to remain in the building during the lunch break, there are far nicer places to eat to be found a short walk away in Covent Garden. These are reasonably well signposted, or at worst can be found by wandering around at random. A later addition is the Queen's Building – normally used for family proceedings, although it was intended to have a criminal function – unfortunately the interior designers were not legally trained and decided that jury boxes would be more pleasing if they sat only ten people. There is also the modern Thomas Moore Building – a complex to the rear of the nineteenth century courts, and whilst necessary due to the ever increasing number of litigants, architecturally is unattractive and uninteresting.
In spite of the modern carbuncles, the RCJ is a wonderful building, with a history that is far greater than I can encapsulate in one node. Decisions here have shaped the history of England across the last century and continue to have a profound and lasting effect on those who seek justice within its walls.
1It was known as the Supreme Court until late 2009 when a body of that name took over the judicial functions of the House of Lords. I was a bit sarcastic about the need to change the name.
2 They are joined by law students, usually identifiable by scruffy appearance, talking too loudly and a displaying a remarkable capacity for getting in people's way. We also study the case listings; looking for trials that will be interesting enough to keep us awake.
A tour undertaken 07/05/2009, facts checked via: