Nosing around the Royal Courts of Justice

After months of hard graft writing the Student Guide, the start of October is always a time to give ourselves a reward or two. All the research has been completed, the text for the book is at the printers, but the university law fair season hasn’t yet kicked in. Taking advantage of this, the team took the short walk from our office in Holborn in Central London to the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street, where resident expert Brian Grover treated us to a two-hour guided tour. Actually, you don’t need to sign up to a tour to have a nose around: the RCJ is open to anyone who can get past the airport-style security.

If you’re not a Londoner, it’s quite possible that all you will have seen of the RCJ is the slightly scruffy sign outside the main entrance, in front of which roving reporters frequently do their pieces to camera for the news or similar. It doesn’t do justice to the building as a whole, which is a large – scratch that, enormous – building constructed in the Neo-Gothic style of which the Victorians were so fond.

What goes on in the RCJ?

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What you won’t see in the Royal Courts of Justice is a criminal trial. Those take place down the road at the Old Bailey. You will see criminals, but they will be already convicted, because this is where they come to challenge their original sentence. On our visit we walked past a court where Olusola Akinrele, a man convicted of killing his seven-week old baby, was appealing.

Juries are also largely absent from the RCJ: they only sit on cases of libel and slander. It is judges alone who determine the outcome of all other disputes that are heard here. The libel cases attract massive attention, of course: the same week we were there, Peter Andre and Katie Price were due to slug it out on a suit he’d brought against her for libel.

So, the first thing we learned from our guide Brian is that it is civil justice that is dispensed at the RCJ. It is home to the High Court of England and Wales, which consists of three divisions:

The Chancery Division: Business, trade and industry disputes, (intellectual property, professional negligence, tax matters, etc) and personal disputes (trusts, wills, probate etc) fall under the remit of the Chancery division. A central principle is the concept of equity.

For example, the Spice Girls showed up here in a contract dispute. Sporty, Scary, Baby, Posh and Ginger had agreed a sponsorship deal with Italian scooter manufacturer Aprilia, who weren’t best pleased when Geri Halliwell then quit, leaving a marketing campaign that featured a fab five, not a fab four. Aprilia won damages when the judges ruled that the group was guilty of misrepresentation because they knew Geri was about to leave.

The largest growing sector in the Chancery division at the moment is insolvency – an extra 20,000 personal insolvencies and an extra 60,000 company insolvencies came the way of this division last year.

The Queen’s Bench Division: Handles large commercial disputes (anything worth over £100,000 automatically comes here); shipping, building and IT matters; claims involving personal injury; medical negligence; and civil wrongs (eg libel and slander).

For example, the parents of Madeline McCann turned up here to sue newspapers that had made unfounded allegations against them.

The Family Division: Divorce, annulments, care of children, domestic violence, etc. Think Heather Mills-McCartney, a famously thrown jug of water and, well… you get the picture.

One of the most striking things we saw was a massive marquee that had been erected in the main courtyard (next to the parked prison vans). This would hold the members of the press and other interested parties for the 7/7 inquest that started later the same week in Court 73. That courtroom also hosted the Hutton Inquiry and the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed.

One of the most unusual things we heard is that every week, staff set up badminton nets in the main lobby and enjoy a few games. At other times the venue is used for big parties.

Who sits where in a courtroom?

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Centre stage and up front: a judge (or three for appeals)

In front of the judge: a court clerk, who draws up orders and fixes other things for the judge; a stenographer; and an usher who is responsible for keeping the court tidy and people in order. Also passes paperwork up to the judge and swears in witnesses using the correct oath and Holy book. Apparently many European countries have already moved to a single non-religious oath.

To the side: a press seat.

The very front row facing the judge and court officials: litigants in person.

Second row: QCs. At this point there is a wooden gate at the side of the rows called The Bar (from whence we get the expression ‘called to the Bar’).

Third row: junior barristers.

Remaining rows: anyone else who chooses to attend, be they solicitors or members of the public. Up above and to the rear is a public gallery, rarely used, although we hear that when the Ghurkhas’ case was being heard it was packed. It was the same when the video evidence was being shown in the Max Mosley libel trial.

And where else might you find yourself as a trainee or litigation solicitor? Quite possibly, The Bear Garden. This location struck fear into the heart of our editor when she was a brand new trainee, dispatched to the RCJ to obtain an (uncontested) order during her first week on the job. There are no bears, of course, and it’s not a garden, so why did it earn the strange name?

The Bear Garden is the area adjacent to the rooms of the Masters of the High Court. Lawyers often gather here to consider or discuss last-minute issues prior to appointments. In days gone by papers were lowered down to the lawyers in baskets from a gallery above. One day Queen Victoria visited the court and hearing the noisy hubbub in this area she remarked that it sounded like a garden full of bears.

History of the RCJ

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Until the late 19th century, a number of separate courts existed all around London. The Chancery Court, featured in Dickens’Bleak House, was one of these. The site upon which the RCJ now stands was in those days a slum – around 450 houses occupied by more than 4,000 people.

When it was decided that London’s courts should be brought under one roof, the land was bought from Middlesex County Council for £1.4m – that’s about £55m in today’s money – and the people were cleared out.

A leading architect of the day, George Edmund Street, won the competition to design the new building, and construction began in 1873. It took more than eight years to complete, due in part to a stonemasons strike. Masons were shipped over from the continent to keep work going, and housed within the building to protect them from the wrath of their striking English counterparts.

Supplies came in through a secret underground tunnel. The finished building contained 35 million Portland stone bricks, more than 3.5 miles of corridor and over 1,000 clocks (many of these have to be wound by hand; a man dubbed The Dawn Winder by Radio 4 comes in a couple of mornings every week to do this).

Street died a year before the RCJ was completed, but his son took over and was present at the opening ceremony, where Queen Victoria expressed the hope that “the uniting together in one place of the various branches of Judicature in this Supreme Court will conduce to the more efficient and speedy administration of justice to my subjects.”

Our thanks to Brian Grover, RCJ tours.

This feature was first published in our December 2010 newsletter.