Essential Architecture-  London

Courts of Justice Law Courts and The Old Bailey


George Edmund Street


on The Strand The nearest tube stations are Chancery Lane and Temple.




Gothic Revival




  The Strand facade of the Royal Courts of Justice in 1890.
  The Old Bailey
  An Old Bailey trial circa 1808.
  The Great Hall in 1882.
The Royal Courts of Justice, commonly called the Law Courts, is a building in London that houses the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. Courts within the building are open to the public although there may be some restrictions depending upon the nature of the cases being held.

The building is a large grey stone edifice in the Victorian Gothic style and was designed by George Edmund Street, a solicitor turned architect, and built in the 1870s. The Royal Courts of Justice was opened by Queen Victoria in December 1882 and became the permanent home of the Supreme Court. It is on The Strand, in the City of Westminster, near the border with the City of London and the London Borough of Camden. It is surrounded by the four Inns of Court.

Those who do not have legal representation may receive some assistance within the court building. The Citizens Advice Bureau has a small office in the main entrance hall where lawyers provide free advice. There is usually a queue for this service. There is also a Personal Support Unit where litigants in person can get emotional support and practical information about what happens in court. The main criminal court (Crown Court), housed separately, is the Central Criminal Court, popularly known as the Old Bailey.

History and Architecture
The eleven architects competing for the contract for the Law Courts each submitted alternative designs with the view of the possible placing of the building on the Thames Embankment. The present site was chosen only after much debate.

In 1868 it was finally decided that George Edmund Street, R.A. was to be appointed the sole architect for the Royal Courts of Justice and it was he who designed the whole building from foundation to varied carvings and spires. Building was started in 1873 by Messrs. Bull & Sons of Southampton.

There was a serious strike of masons at an early stage which threatened to extend to the other trades and caused a temporary stoppage of the works. In consequence, foreign workmen were brought in – mostly Germans. This aroused bitter hostility on the part of the men on strike and the newcomers had to be housed and fed in the building. However, these disputes were eventually settled and the building took eight years to complete and was officially opened by Queen Victoria on the 4th December, 1882. Sadly, Street died before the building was opened.

Parliament paid £1,453.000 for the 6 acre site upon which 450 houses had to be demolished. The building was paid for by cash accumulated in court from the estates of the intestate to the sum of £700,000. Oak work and fittings in the court cost a further £70,000 and with decoration and furnishing the total cost for the building came to under a million pound.

The dimensions of the building (in round figures) are: 470 feet from east to west; 460 feet from north to south; 245 feet from the Strand level to the tip of the fleche.

Entering through the main gates in the Strand one passes under two elaborately carved porches fitted with iron gates. The carving over the outer porch consists of heads of the most eminent Judges and Lawyers. Over the highest point of the upper arch is a figure of the Saviour; to the left and right at a lower level are figures of Solomon and Alfred; that of Moses is at the northern front of the building. Also at the northern front, over the Judges entrance are a stone cat and dog representing fighting litigants in court.

On either side are gateways leading to different Courts and Jury and Witness Rooms from which separate staircases are provided for them to reach their boxes in Court. During the 1960’s, jury rooms in the basement area were converted to courtrooms. At either end of the hall are handsome marble galleries from which the entire Main Hall can be viewed.

The walls and ceilings (of the older, original Courts) are panelled in oak which in many cases is elaborately carved. In Court 4, the Lord Chief Justice’s court, there is an elaborately carved wooden Royal Coat of Arms. Each court has an interior unique to itself; they were each designed by different architects.

There are, in addition to the Waiting Rooms, several Arbitration and Consultation Chambers together with Robing Rooms for the member of the bar.

Extensions to the building
The first extension was the West Green building for which plans were drawn in 1910 and this was to house extra divorce courts. They were the first to have modern air conditioning and tape recoding in their original design.

The next new building was the Queen’s Building opened in 1968 providing a further twelve courts. This building also contains cells in the basement.

With an ever increasing workload the eleven storey Thomas More Building was built to house the Bankruptcy and Companies Courts and yet more offices. A grand view can be had from the top looking over to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Central Criminal Courts in the City of London.

Finally, it was necessary to build an additional twelve courts for the Chancery Division named the Thomas More Courts, which opened in January 1990. all this has meant there is little room left for further extension on the site should it be necessary in the future. However, an extensive refurbishment of the East Block took place during 1994-95 which provided 14 extra courts for the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal and 2 extra large courts which are unassigned and will be used for cases where there are several parties involved or there are an unusually large amount of documents and books.

It should also be remembered that there are further courts at St. Dunstan’s House, which come under the wing of the Law Courts and are within short walking distance.

Anyone is allowed to watch the trials which are taking place for free, apart from private family cases such as adoption proceedings.

The Old Bailey

The Central Criminal Court, commonly known as the Old Bailey (a bailey being part of a castle), is a Crown Court centre (higher criminal court) in central London, dealing with major criminal cases in Greater London and, exceptionally, in other parts of England. It stands on the site of the medieval Newgate Gaol, in the street also called Old Bailey which is situated between Holborn circus and St Paul's Cathedral. The present building dates from 1907 and was designed by E.W. Mountford. Above the main entrance is inscribed "Defend the Children of the Poor & Punish the Wrongdoer".

All judges sitting in the Old Bailey are addressed as "My Lord" whether they be High Court, circuit judges or recorders. The Lord Mayor of London and aldermen of the City of London are entitled to sit on the judges' bench during a hearing but do not actively participate in trials.

On the dome above the court is to be found the statue of justice, a woman (without a blindfold), holding in her right hand a sword standing for the power to punish, and in her left hand a balance standing for equity.

Although most court hearings in the UK are public, Court No. 2 has the peculiarity that the witness box is placed underneath the public gallery, thus ensuring the anonymity of witnesses in trials where it is needed.

During the Blitz, the Old Bailey was bombed and severely damaged, but subsequent reconstruction work restored most of it.

From 1968 to 1972 a new South Block was built containing more modern courts.

The most senior permanent judge of the Central Criminal Court has the title of the Recorder of London, and his deputy has the title of Common Serjeant of London. The present Recorder of London is His Honour Judge Peter Beaumont QC. , who was appointed in December 2004 following the death earlier that year of his predecessor, His Honour Judge Michael Hyam. The present Common Serjeant is His Honour Judge Brian Barker QC. The position of Recorder of London should not be confused with that of Recorder, which is the name given to lawyers who sit part-time as Crown Court judges. A select number of the most senior criminal lawyers in the country sit at as Recorders in the Central Criminal Court.

The Old Bailey is where Sir John Mortimer practised as a barrister. His courtroom experiences led him to create the fictional character Horace Rumpole, alias Rumpole of the Bailey.

Trials in the Old Bailey are open to the public, like most criminal trials in the UK, but it is forbidden to take any form of note in writing, and no form of electronic equipment, including mobile phones, can be brought in. The story that a member of the public, whose mobile happened to interrupt a trial and was called before the court and immediately sentenced to six months imprisonment for contempt of court, is almost certainly untrue.

In popular culture
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details about V For Vendetta follow.
In the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the anarchist protagonist has a "conversation" with the statue of justice, at the top of the building, acting as if she is an ex-girlfriend: he accuses her of cheating on him like a whore with "a man in uniform" -- the fascist regime that has taken over Britain -- but then informs her that her "infidelity" has driven him into the arms of a new "lover", Anarchy. V says that his new love has taught him that "justice" is meaningless without freedom, and then leaves a parting gift at her feet, a package of explosives which demolish the entire building, symbolising his rejection of the State in favour of Anarchism.

The destruction of the monument is also present in the 2006 film adaptation, where it is the title character's first terrorist act, beginning the one year countdown to the destruction of the Houses of Parliament. What is notably different in the movie, however, is that V "devotes" his performance to "madam justice" (the aforementioned statue of justice) "in honour of the holiday she seems to have taken from these parts, and in recognition of the imposter that stands in her stead." Rather than accusing her of cheating on him, V sees justice as having abandoned her post and been replaced with the harsher punishments and standards of fascism.