The Royal Courts of Justice is one of those buildings in London that I’ve walked past many times, admiring its beauty, but have never expected to be able to visit (that is, unless I was to commit a particularly heinous crime, an idea which lacks appeal). So, when I found out that the London Historians were organising a tour, I jumped at the opportunity to join.
Entering through the main doors and into the magnificent Great Hall, the first thing that strikes you is how much it resembles the interior of a cathedral. With its stained glass windows, elegant archways and marble mosaic floor you could easily be standing in a place of worship – not surprising, when you consider that the building’s architect, George Edmund Street, specialised in church restorations and was a devout Christian.
A number of interesting artefacts are displayed prominently. Portraits of renowned judges adorn the walls, including two impressive-looking personages known as the “Great Fire of London Judges”, because of their roles, post-Fire, in resolving disputes between landlords and tenants. I also spotted several statues, including one of Charles Arthur Russell, Baron Russell of Killowen – the country’s first Roman Catholic Lord Chief Justice – and one of the building’s architect, George Edmund Street (more on whom later). There is also a simple, but effective, memorial to members of the legal profession who lost their lives in World Wars One and Two.
So, when and how did this noble building come into being? Let us travel back in time to the year 1834 – when most of London’s courts were based in or around Westminster Hall. This was all to change when a devastating fire swept through the Palace of Westminster, destroying virtually every building in its path. In due course, the government began looking for potential sites for new courts, eventually plumping for an area between the Strand and Fleet Street. Although there was a logic to this choice of site, given its proximity to all four of the Inns of Court, it was a controversial decision. This particular area housed some of worst slums in London, with an average of 18 people living in every room – and public opinion was that this was an ill-thought out slum clearance masquerading as a construction project. Even the way in which the building was to be paid for became controversial: the money was raised from cash accumulated in court from the estates of the intestate.
A compulsory purchase acquisition scheme, begun in 1851, did nothing to allay people’s fears. Ultimately, it led to the displacement, rather than the re-housing, of most of the people living there – at that time, politicians considered public housing to be a matter for charity, rather than an issue that should be addressed by the government.
In 1866, a public competition was held to find an architect. Ultimately, two were appointed: George Edmund Street, to design the exterior, and Charles Barry to design the interior. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this experiment was unsuccessful; consequently Street was appointed sole architect in June 1868. Work finally began on the building in 1873 – and Queen Victoria officially opened the Royal Courts of Justice in 1882.
Once you leave the grandeur of the Great Hall and descend downstairs to the court rooms, there is a distinct change in atmosphere. Gone are the sense of history and the neo-Gothic architecture, replaced by a sense of purpose and drab, functional decor. The court rooms themselves are even plainer than the corridors which link them – I was amazed at how sparsely-furnished they are. We were lucky enough to be able to go into one of the court rooms, where a case was being heard, and observe for ourselves British justice in progress. While we were doing so, I couldn’t help but cast a critical eye around, noting the lack of natural light (curtains completely covered the windows) and IKEA-style empty bookcases scattered around the room. Two judges (one female, one male) were managing the proceedings and I was interested to observe how much they interacted with the legal counsel. Thanks to film and TV, we’re used to seeing judges nodding off in their seats, or, alternatively, cracking sarcastic jokes – however, in this case, both judges were putting questions to the legal counsel whilst taking copious notes. The interaction between these key personnel was one surprise, as was the fact that no clerk or usher was present – and how casually all the participants were dressed. We later learned that, during informal proceedings, no robes or wigs are worn.
I was equally surprised to spot both a Wellbeing Centre and a Therapy Room en route to the next stop of our tour. Proof that the judiciary is human, after all?
The Criminal Court of Appeal courts, upstairs, are much more imposing than their Civil counterparts. Lined with volume after volume of legal publications, they are comfortably furnished, with the three presiding judges allocated comfy-looking red seats and the other legal staff perched upon snazzy blue chairs. Judges hearing criminal cases here have the power to quash convictions, reduce or increase sentences and request new trials. In total, the building houses 80 courts, although not all of them are in use at the same time. There are cells, too – although these are used for legal visits only.
Also on the upstairs floor I particularly liked the Painted Room; this is the most decorated room in the building, not to mention the most colourful – its walls are painted in red and green and adorned with coats of arms belonging to Lincoln’s Inn, Grey’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and, last but not least, Queen Victoria.
Last stop: the intriguingly-named Bear Garden. More simply decorated than its Painted Room neighbour, this room is used for pre-court discussions. It takes its name from a comment made by Queen Victoria who, when touring the newly-opened courts, was astounded by the number of people standing around and the noise emanating from them, exclaiming, “It’s a veritable bear garden!”
With the words of that esteemed monarch ringing in our ears, we headed back downstairs to the Great Hall, noticing as we did so a number of carvings on some of the pillars. Following a masons’ strike at an early stage of the building’s construction, German masons were brought across to London to continue the work and had to be housed within the building, because of the hostility levelled at them. They made the carvings “for fun”, in their spare time – a high class graffiti, if you will.
These days, the Royal Courts of Justice is used for legal purposes only – it did go through a phase of hiring out rooms for events such as dinners, weddings and fashion shows, but this ended in 2014 amidst general agreement that such activities commercialised the law and detracted from the dignity of the Court. As we left this prestigious building, we passed a beautiful painting of its Opening in 1882 – featuring such esteemed personages as the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of York, together with Queen Victoria, the artist paid a poignant tribute to George Edmund Street by including his son in the picture. The architect himself had died a year previously, at the untimely age of 57 – worn out by the endless responsibility of this massive project. What a shame he never got to see its completion: I am certain he would have felt very proud.