Did you know that for the past decade the UK has had a Supreme Court? You may not have known we had one at all, or you may have assumed we’d had one for centuries.
Until 2009, though, civil cases that had been tried in local courts and the Royal Courts of Justice, if appealed further, were heard by the Law Lords sitting in the House of Lords. The Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 separated the judiciary from the executive branch of the government, meaning that those who applied the law were no longer part of the same branch of government as those who made the law. They thus needed somewhere else to have their offices and hear their cases.
Just across Parliament Square was the perfect building. It had previously been the Middlesex Guildhall, and then a Crown Court centre, so was equipped with courtrooms as well as offices and other facilities, but it was dark, cluttered and a bit dingy. A major renovation was undertaken, and in 2009 the building was reborn as the first Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
It is an absolutely exemplary example (!) of how an old building can be converted for 21st century needs and tastes without losing any of its charm or character. While one courtroom is definitely very white and modern, it has been hung with beautiful curtains printed with a pattern echoing the logo used throughout the building to represent the four nations of the UK – the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland, the flax for Northern Ireland (as opposed to the shamrock – representing the nations economic link with linen weaving, apparently), and the leek for Wales. This last is the least well-served, in my opinion – the long green leaves being the only hint of a leek – but it’s there.
Courtroom 1 retains its wonderful hammer-beam roof and carved wooden pews, and the triple-height library is a wonderful space that manages to combine age and posterity with light and welcome.
While the library is only open to the public on special open days (of which Open House London is the next option in 2019), you can see the rest of the building – the public areas, at least) for free any week day.
The redesign paid particular attention to how the building could help in the work of ensuring that justice not only is accessible to all, but feels accessible to all. So although all the rooms are, in their own way, impressive, they are also designed to feel welcoming and not intimidating. There is good wheelchair access throughout, and all the courtrooms are arranged on one level, so there is no impression of a lofty judge looking sternly down his or her nose passing judgement on the lowly public below. The tables are arranged in curves, to further promote the idea that this is about the discussion of points of law, rather than about dispute and argument.
The building is light and cool, the staff are friendly and warm, and the public are welcomed in to see how the law is applied and interpreted. You can visit any court session for as long or short as you want – there is plenty of public seating at the back of each courtroom – and there is an excellent display in the basement, explaining the history and function of the court.
There is also a cafe, though I found it rather pricey, and the range of sandwiches and cakes available less extensive than their advertising suggests – and there’s not a great deal of seating, but if you’re gasping for a cuppa it will do!
I highly recommend visiting this really brilliant building. I learned a lot on their recent open day, but most of all was impressed to see that it really is possible to create a building that is both functional and beautiful. See it if you possibly can.
What: Visit the UK’s Supreme Court
Where: The Supreme Court, Parliament Square, London SW1P 3BD
When: 0930 to 1630, Monday to Friday. See this page for details of special open days and Open House London weekend (annually in September)
How much: Free. Guided tours are available on most Fridays throughout the year, costing £7/£5 per person