The architecture of the Royal Courts of Justice is designed to impress the humble citizen with the power and might of the civil law of the United Kingdom, to portray the central idea that wrongdoers will be punished and that victims will be vindicated. All this is emphasised by taking a free tour – self-guided with a helpful leaflet - or as a paying member of a group with a Blue Badge Guide.
N.B. Photography is not allowed inside the building and the Royal Courts of Justice refused permission for me to use the photos which they have on their site so you'll have to use your imagination!
On entering the visitor could be forgiven for thinking that they had strayed into a cathedral by mistake – the height and scale of the Great Central Hall with its soaring arches, ornate stonework, mosaic marbled floor, stained glass windows and statues all give the impression that justice must come from God, that the workings of the law are mysterious yet absolute.
Indeed, George Edmund Street, who won the commission was an ecclesiastical architect, and had worked with Sir Gilbert Scott, the English Gothic revival enthusiast, so the expectation of the Victorian committee who appointed him was that the resulting building would be majestic and powerful. With 1000 rooms, 35 long corridors and 35 million pieces of stone it is undeniably grandiose and imposing.
It was completed by 1882 and opened by Queen Victoria, with William Gladstone the Prime Minister also present. Originally with 19 courts, the later expansion and the addition of the Rolls Building mean that there are now 132 courts available.
No criminal cases are tried here – although appeals against criminal sentences may be heard in the High Court. Instead, the Chancery Division deals with trade and industry disputes, insolvency and personal disputes over trusts, wills and probate. The King’s Bench Division handles large commercial disputes, claims of personal injury, medical negligence, libel and slander. The Family Division deals with divorce, the care of children and some domestic violence cases. Serious national inquires are also heard here e.g. the inquiry into the death of Princess Diana, involvement in the Iraq War and recently the tragic event of the Grenfell fire. Any member of the public has the right to listen to a court case in the Public Gallery (except Family Courts) as long as it is not being held in camera.
The tour begins in the Great Central Hall and it was somewhat surprising to learn that it was still permitted, by tradition, to play Badminton here on occasions as shuttlecocks cause no damage to the stonework.
But here you find the business of the day – the Daily Cause Lists identify the cases being heard and in which court and which judge is presiding. On a normal working day the whole area is filled with barristers and clients discussing the progress of their cases. They work with the statues of eminent men looking down upon them – Lord Russell of Killowen the first Roman Catholic judge, Sir William Blackstone, who wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England and George Edmund Street, the architect.
A small glass cabinet displays presents from abroad given to members of the judiciary – who are not permitted to accept them personally. This vast building is incredibly expensive to run, so these days you are likely to find it raising money by being featured in films such as Skyfall and Mission Impossible, and it has also been used for London Fashion Week.
The guide then conducts a tour of the building up above the Great Central Hall. The visitor learns that the police force here is headed by the Tipstaff – the only person authorised to make an arrest within the Royal Courts of Justice. He has a metal tipped staff (hence his name) – now used for ceremonial occasions.
Rarely, if someone objects violently to the progress or verdict in a case, they can find themselves arrested and conducted to a cell. The 14 cells are also there to house convicted appellants until they are required in court.
Visitors walk past the various courtrooms and see exhibitions of wigs and hats. Wigs have been in use since the reign of Charles II – when wigs fell out of fashion for the general public the judiciary retained them for solemn identification and to command respect. Made of horsehair they used to have to be powdered regularly to get rid of “critters” within, but apparently more acceptable modern methods have cured the problem!
The tour includes the Painted Room, prepared for Queen Victoria, with marble columns and the walls strikingly dramatic in red and green, with much of the Queen’s insignia portrayed as well as the coats of arms of the four Inns of Court – Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. Next door is the Bear Garden, so called because Victoria is reputed to have described the noise made by barristers and their clients as “like a Bear Garden”, referring to the noise coming from bear pits on bear-bating nights.
Nearby is the office of the King’s Remembrancer – the oldest continuing job in the judiciary. His/her job today is largely ceremonial but involves regularly updating the King on how the Acts of Parliament that he has signed into law are working in practice.
The tour ends in the museum which has a small display of legal costumes – the longevity of traditional dress is symbolic of the continuity of the legal system. There are full court dress and regalia in cases, professional robes designed to remind the wearers of their duty and the public of their position at court. Here too is one of the old black caps worn by a judge pronouncing the death sentence and the original transcript of the trial of Guido Fawkes in 1606 after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.
The visitor emerges from the building into the noise and bustle of The Strand somewhat awestruck, glad to have been there as a spectator only, but very conscious that justice is there to be done and can be seen to be done.
Visiting the Royal Courts of Justice
Address: Strand, London WC2A 2LL
Nearest tube station: Temple
A self-guided tour is free and probably better than a guided one which costs £14+. As the tour side of the business is partnered with a multi-national corporation, they really don't need any additional income!