Watch a trial, take a tour, sip a cocktail and play badminton…it’s all possible in London’s famous courts.
Courts and trials have long captured the imagination of London folk. The young Charles Dickens was a court reporter, and gleaned traits of his fictional characters from the criminals, clerks and judges he saw. From the beginning, London’s courts have been a conveyor belt for stories of grim murder and celebrity ignominy.
At many of these places, the public are free to walk in and watch. Even those buildings no longer functioning as courts have been redeveloped in some interesting ways. Here are five London courts you should visit – preferably not as a defendant.
The Central Criminal Court – or Old Bailey – presides over the City of London and is probably the most famous criminal court anywhere. As any psychogeographer will tell you, law and justice runs thick in these here parts: a section of the Old Bailey is built on the spot where Newgate Prison once stood. Dead Man’s Walk – the series of successively smaller archways that cruelly led to a scaffold – still exists, though of course isn’t in use anymore.
The Old Bailey itself has passed the guilty verdict on figures including Dr Crippen, the Krays and Peter Sutcliffe. Its courts are open to the public Monday to Friday from 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm. Be warned – you might end up in the not-so-opulent South Block, rather than the 18th century build crowned with the statue of Justice.
As the name suggests, the Supreme Court is where ‘cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance’ take place. You can actually watch live screenings streamed from Middlesex Guildhall – the building’s official name – on the Sky News website. Then again, if you want to see justice dished out first-hand, visit the court itself on Parliament Square. Hearings are open to the public Monday 11am to 4pm and Tuesday to Thursday 10.30am to 4pm. You can also take a guided tour (price £5) or a self-guided tour for the trifling sum of £1. That’s 18 times cheaper than popping into Westminster Abbey across the way.
During the 1960s and 70s, the Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Court became synonymous with celebrity bad boys: Mick Jagger was pulled in on charges of drug possession, as was Keith Richards, who was also charged with possession of an antique firearm. Johnny Rotten was another unwilling visitor, and in 1963 the courthouse officially kicked off the whole Profumo scandal. Now renamed the Courthouse Hotel, you won’t see a trial here anymore (the word ‘hotel’ is a giveaway), but the place is still very much worth a recce. For one thing, you can slurp cocktails in the disused cells (presumably, the mood lighting is a later addition). The hotel is also home to one of London’s largest private cinemas; look out for regular movie and champagne deals online.
Royal Courts of Justice
The Gothic Revival facade of the Royal Courts of Justice is a staple backdrop of teatime news broadcasts, and must be a jolly unnerving sight for anyone attending a hearing. Inside are three miles of corridors and 88 court rooms; the public are free to roam from 10am to 4.30pm every weekday. High-profile cases take place regularly: the Spice Girls were successfully appealed against by a scooter manufacturer at the court’s Chancery Division, the Diana and Dodi inquest was held in Court 73, as was the Hutton enquiry. But it’s not all doom and gloom within these walls; many of the building’s spaces are hired out for weddings and parties. And incredibly, every Wednesday evening the Great Hall is turned into a makeshift badminton club.
Bow Street Magistrates’ Court
Bow Street was the home of London’s first street police force, and the magistrates court here was formally linked to the Bow Street Runners until they were dissolved in 1839. The court continued; in its 266 year history, trials included those of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, General Pinochet, and the episode in which the Marquess of Queensberry publicly dubbed Oscar Wilde a sodomite. July 2006 saw Bow Street Magistrates’ Court’s final trial – that of Jason John Handy, a man charged with breaching the terms of his ASBO. The story of Bow Street Magistrates’ Court isn’t over yet; the erstwhile cells of the Grade II-listed building are to be converted into a museum of the Metropolitan Police. There’s going to be a boutique hotel too. It’s what Bow Street Runners founder Henry Fielding would have wanted.
Note: There are strict rules regarding what you can take into some courts, and even what you wear. We recommend you check the guidelines for each court before making the trip.