England is the birthplace of justice in many parts of the world where the British Empire had influence. While the Old Bailey is traditionally associated with criminal court, the Royal Courts of Justice (also known as the Law Courts) is where the ultimate legal power of England and Wales resides. The Law Courts house both the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice. The lower courts within its halls are more concerned with civil rather than criminal matters. Located in the Strand, the Four Inns of Court are located nearby, from which come the nation’s barristers, training for the day when they will practice in those very courts.
Prior to the 19th Century, many civil cases and appeals were heard in Westminster Hall and surrounding buildings. Parliament originally proposed a separate civil court building in 1866. Reportedly, when the government called for architects to contribute designs for the building, Parliament lied and told the men that they would be designing a cathedral. Ultimately, 11 architects responded to the call and from among them, George Edmund Street, himself the son of a solicitor, was chosen to design the Law Courts. Originally, Parliament had wanted to locate the building on the Thames Embankment, but moved it to the Strand after much debate.
Street’s design was a Victorian Gothic palace and he designed everything from the base to the spires. Construction began on the Law Courts in 1873 with Messrs Bull & Sons of Southampton tapped for the construction. Early on the construction, a strike from the masons had threatened to spill into other building trades and foreign workers had to be brought in to continue the work. It would be another nine years before Queen Victoria opened the courts on 4 December 1882. Unfortunately, as with so many great buildings, George Edmund Street would not live to see the completion of his masterpiece, having died in 1881.
As for the dimensions, the Law Courts are 470 feet from east to west, 460 feet from north to south, and 240 feet from the street to the tips of the spires. In addition to the many spires, the front of the Law Courts includes two iron gates granting admittance to the elaborate stone porches and beyond into the Great Hall. The interior has more than 1,000 rooms that include various meeting chambers, administrative offices, and at least 78 court rooms. Additionally, there are approximately 3.5 miles of corridors. The interior is filled with statues of many famous persons associated with law and justice including King Solomon, Jesus Christ, King Alfred, and Moses. There are also numerous statues and paintings of well-known judges who once administered the law in the courts.
The first extension to the Law Courts was constructed in 1910 to make room for divorce courts. These more modern additions would become the first parts of the courts to have air conditioning and tape recording. Another 12 courts were added with the Queen’s Building in 1968. The most recent addition is the Thomas More courts building, which opened in 1990 and added another 12 courts for the Chancery Division. What’s more, the court rooms also have their own unique histories, such as Court 4, which is presently the Lord Chief Justice’s Court. Originally it was located in Court 6, but the Lord Chief Justice at the time felt that was unlucky had it moved. Continuing the superstition, room 666 had its number removed from the walls and is presently unused.
While the Royal Courts of Justice are opened to tours, it continues to be used today for all manner of civil matters from lawsuits to adoption hearings. Anyone over the age of fourteen is permitted to view proceedings in the public gallery, though more private proceedings such as adoptions are not open to viewers. The tours, meanwhile, last approximately one hour and are led by legal experts with a focus on the history of the courts. They enable visitors to get a full picture of the civil court system in Britain, including the opportunity to sit where the parties to a case do and peer behind-the-scenes. Whether you come with an interest in architecture, law, or history, you’ll find it all at the Royal Courts of Justice.