In a city where the people delight in the slew of museums and galleries that don't cost you a penny, one free activity often flies under the radar. Sitting in on a court case may sound like a peculiar use of your free time, but it's something that has sat in the back of my mind for the better part of a decade now.
And why do one court when you can do three? Over the course of one day, I climbed the ornate staircase of the Supreme Court to watch proceedings in the nation's highest court; explored the Hogwartesque Royal Courts of Justice; and experienced the uncomfortable real-life theatre that is watching a murder trial at the Old Bailey.
The Supreme Court
It is a soggy day in Parliament Square Garden. Most who've come here tend to gaze in only one direction. With Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in attendance, it's a little unfair on the other buildings that surround the square. So on the west side of the garden, behind the statue of Abraham Lincoln, you might not yet have admired the art nouveau-gothic, Middlesex Guildhall, home to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
I bundle in through the doors to escape the driving rain. After passing through the airport level security I take one of the pamphlets sat on the inquiry desk, which gives information on the case being held that day. A winding staircase leads me up through the floors, past the small but beautiful stained glass windows set into the curved walls.
At the top of the stairs a small woman bars my way into Court Number 1. Now, this may have been just me, but I'm sure her eyes narrow slightly.
"Have you remembered to switch off your mobile phone?". Her accusatory stare throws me a little as if I've been pinpointed as the one who would likely forget to turn off their phone in court. The fact that I have actually forgotten to turn my phone off is beside the point.
Court Number 1 is a grand room; its high ceiling supported by hefty wooden beams. Four large portraits lie towards the corners. The Duke of Wellington's is considerably large than the others. A clock set in a wooden casing ticks slowly down to 10.30am as the room fills up. Two large bookcases flank both sides — the kind of books that, I'm sure, are meant to be looked at but not touched. It is a room where momentous decisions have been made — and it looks every inch the part.
"All rise" the court clerk orders. We stand as the five judges enter. As if on some unheard cue, all in the court bow towards the judges, then take their seats. The barrister for the respondent stands and dives immediately into a series of baffling legal speeches, of which I understand only a fraction. In layman's terms, the case revolves around whether the government can force a board member of a large charity on how to vote, with the two remaining board members having recused themselves (and divorced one another).
It is, admittedly not a thrilling spectacle, as I suspect is the case for many real-life trials. But it's interesting to watch nonetheless, particularly given the majestic setting. I stay for an hour then inch my way out as quietly as possible.
The Royal Courts of Justice
My route leads me down Whitehall, past Trafalgar Square and onto the Strand, before coming to a stop at the Royal Courts of Justice. Unlike the Supreme Court, which must compete for attention with better-known neighbours, the RCJ sits pompously on the Strand, opposite a Twinings shop and the George pub. People rush past it daily, perhaps without stopping take in its full splendour. Viewed from the opposite side of the street, this Victorian gothic behemoth, built in the 1870s, truly reveals itself. Inside is no different. (Photography is not allowed anywhere within the RCJ so you'll have to go and see it for yourself.) Passing through security I enter the Great Hall, an expansive cathedral-like room, where apparently, after-hours games of badminton are played from time to time (a court within a court, if you like). If this was a museum or gallery, there would be log jam of tourists waiting to enter, but it remains peaceful, authentic — even eerie.
Having some time before the afternoon cases begin I explore the cavernous building, pulling open old creaky wooden doors to reveal empty, echoing passageways. I constantly feel like I am about to be scolded for entering an area I am not supposed to be in. This may also have something to do with the fact the only sound I hear comes from my own squeaky shoes. Occasionally I come across groups of barristers gathered at small tables, poring over notes while digging into sandwiches.
I spend a good 10 minutes going over the list of active trials that day on the boards behind the information desk. But without knowing specifics in advance it's difficult to find out much about the cases, as they only have simple factual information; respondents, defendants, courtroom numbers and times. The man behind the information desk had told me to come back if I didn't find what I was looking for, but it doesn't help that I don't know what I'm looking for. I wander around hoping for some kind of inspiration. Outside Court number 14 a large group of people are milling around waiting expectantly and I decide this is as good a court as any.
The room is considerably smaller than the Supreme Court, with a generous amount of wood paneling. The small seating area is completely filled, with one man leaning over whispering conspiratorially with a member of the legal team. The judge enters and the court falls silent. This is a personal injury case, and from what I can gather, centres around whether a parent has the right to withhold a medical diagnosis from an adult child. Again, if I’m completely honest it’s not a Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson experience. There is no screaming, no blind fury for the truth, just the simple steps that govern our everyday laws. As with the Supreme Court, you can cross your fingers for an interesting trial, but otherwise consider booking onto a tour.
Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey)
After the magnitude of the Supreme Court, and the splendour of the RCJ, the Old Bailey brings you crashing back to Earth. Bags and any kind of electronics are prohibited in the court building, and I am directed to a travel agent nearby who can store my stuff.
The man at the door motions me back towards the public gallery entrance, another sign that this going to be very different. The grimy, dimly lit Warwick Passage has more than a touch of the condemned to it. A turning on the left leads through a small door and I climb up a drab staircase. Have I taken a wrong turning? It feels as if I am about to come up inside the holding cells.
"Where can I sit in on a hearing?" I ask one of the surprisingly cheerful security guards.
"Go up the stairs and speak to one of my colleagues on any of the floors" he responds. I make my way up, winding through people waiting in the stairwell and find a woman on floor 1, explaining my request again.
"You can go into courtroom 15," she says, adding quickly, "it's a murder trial". I nod but immediately feel a little uneasy. She leads me down the corridor, opens the door to court 15 and points to a chair.
"We recommend you stay at least half an hour," she whispers as I pass her. The public galleries are situated on an upper-level viewing gallery, allowing you to sit above the court, looking down upon it, hawk-like. There is a tension in the air as a witness is examined, whom I can hear, but not see. It is a fascinating experience to watch something you have seen so many times in movies and on TV taking place in real life.
Suddenly the jury is leaving, and so are the other people in the gallery. The woman outside tells me to wait in the stairwell and they will call us back when the court reconvenes. A young woman is sitting on a step in front of me, a look of dejected exhaustion on her face. It dawns on me that the people around me know those in the trials. There is a heavy, sad atmosphere as we wait in the bleak stairwell.
We are soon brought back in, and I sit for an hour, transfixed by what is going on below. Not for the gory, or salacious details, which are numerous, but simply the riveting experience of witnessing something like this in the flesh. As a prosecutor circles a witness like a bird of prey, it's easy to think of this as some kind of macabre theatre. But I am constantly reminded that a murder has taken place and the two people sitting behind the glass screen below me, have been accused of it. Cases like this at the Old Bailey have always fired the public interest — from Crippen to 'Lord Haw Haw' to the Krays.
I'm not going to make a habit of watching trials. But if it's something you've never done, it's well worth experiencing at least once. Each court I visited provided something completely different. There is a sense of monumental importance in what happens in the Supreme Court, while the Royal Courts of Justice is worth visiting just to amble through the atmospheric corridors. The Old Bailey provides something altogether different. There is something raw and uncomfortable about what you witness there, but that shouldn't put you off. It is simply a truthful reflection of the world we live in. For those with curious minds who are open to a challenging environment, this is one of London's most unusual free experiences.