A few months ago – back when it was cold and wet (remember that?) – I took a day off work to check out some jaunts that can only be jaunted (?) on weekdays. One (the Bank of England) was oddly underwhelming. Another (the Museum of the Order of St John) turned out to be available at weekends, too (though maybe the church was only open on Tuesdays), but the Royal Courts of Justice were more of a success (fuelled by a delicious mixed grill at the Wetherspoons with the world’s best loos).
The Royal Courts of Justice are housed in a beautiful building (that is apparently too big to take a photo of, even from across the street), just where the Strand meets Fleet Street, in the heart of what has been London’s legal district for centuries. The building is Victorian and is vast, impressive – and free to visit.
You can book a tour online (£14 for adults, £11 for children), or pick up a leaflet on your arrival and take a self-guided tour. And you can even go and watch a trial taking place. The website doesn’t seem to mention this, for some reason, but it’s true – apart from some private trials (which are clearly marked) you can walk into any trial throughout the building and see what it’s like.
They won’t be particularly exciting, probably. “Because the Royal Courts of Justice only deal with civil issues, the majority of cases involve topics such as financial or family disputes as well as asylum, libel or deportation hearings. Although some cases may be a tad on the boring side, you may get lucky and sit in on a case involving a famous name or celebrity!” (Source)
If you want a criminal trial, you need the Old Bailey, further down Fleet Street, towards St Paul’s – though security there is very tight, and you won’t be allowed to take in camera, knives, backpacks or even phones, and you certainly won’t be allowed to explore the building, so I’d stick with the Royal Courts if I were you.
The public are allowed into trials from 10am until 4pm, and I recommend getting there in the morning if you can. By the time I arrived, at about 2.30, most of the trials seemed to have finished for the day, and the one I did manage to find ended about ten minutes after I’d entered. I was quite relieved, really, as it was extremely dull – though fun to see the judge and barristers in their wigs and robes, and the opposing sides ranged with all their enormous files of paperwork along long tables in front of the judge (no jury, of course, because it wasn’t a criminal trial).
The fun of it was just being able to wander round the building unchallenged – through lots of areas where it definitely felt like I wasn’t supposed to be! Up in lifts, down winding stone staircases, along tiled hallways and carpeted corridors. You go through an airport-style security scanner when you first go in, but after that, you’re free to roam.
There are some impressive loos on the right-hand side of the main hall (when you stand with your back to the street), and a cafe somewhere off in the bowels of the building (closed by the time I got there, but a blog post which I now can’t find again told me it was inexpensive!). You can’t take photos in the building, which was a shame.
There is apparently lots to see, including “the Painted Room, the Crypt, the Great Hall and the sculpture/costume exhibit room (which is located between the two wings of the courtrooms on the second floor). Visitors can also view the original court documents relating to the infamous Guy Fawkes case (dating all the way back to 1605), and read up on the history of famous art displayed within the Courts’ walls.” I didn’t see any of that, though – too busy trying to find a trial! I’ll have to go back sometime.
Speaking of finding a trial, here’s how to do that:
Option 1: look up the Cause Lists online before you go, and decide what you want to see (good luck making head or tail of it!).
Option 2: on arrival, go past the information desk to see the Cause Lists pinned to boards behind it, and choose from there.
Both options: When you’ve made your choice, as the person at the information desk to direct you. Good luck. He gave me a map and detailed instructions, and I still never found the room he was trying to describe. Since I’d just picked a number more or less at random, I didn’t exactly have a burning interest in the case, so I just found a room with signs of life and went in there.
In some ways it was the dullest and most fruitless thing I’ve done in London for quite sometime, but in other ways it was wonderfully exciting and I would definitely go again. So make of that what you will!
What: See a trial at the Royal Courts of Justice
When: Monday-Friday 10am-4pm most weeks. Check the website for any changes. The building is open to the public from 9:30am to 16:30pm Monday to Friday all year round (though presumably not on Bank Holidays).
Where: Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, Holborn, London WC2A 2LL
How much: Free. Pre-booked tours are available for £14/£11
Top tip: When you’re done, go and explore the Inns of Courts – Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple. They’re well worth a wander – you’ll find it hard to believe you’re still in Central London! And visit Temple Church if you can (opening times vary, check the website for details), it’s beautiful and parts of it date back to the 12th century when it was built by the Knights Templar.
Top tip 2: If it’s courts you’re into, you can also watch a trial at the Supreme Court, on Parliament Square, and wander (fairly) freely around the building there. It’s another superb building, opened in 2009 after a huge renovation. Look out for the symbols of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland everywhere – from the carpets and curtains to the intricate stone-work. How nice to see that a building can be made modern, bright and functional while retaining its beauty and incorporating lots of heritage.
In 2019, the Old Bailey is running tours on the Saturday of Open House London (21 September). You’ll need to book in advance, and the booking link opens at 10am on Thursday, 5th Sept. Get your trigger finger ready.