A walk around the Royal Courts of Justice

Ursula Smartt | October 3, 2019

A walk around the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London
By Ursula Smartt JP, Lecturer in Law and Careers Counsellor, author of Media and Entertainment Law (Routledge).

This is a visit you may wish to make with friends and members of your family when they are visiting you. The visit is not compulsory for first year law students at NCH but all law students are strongly encouraged to visit these law courts at least once during their legal study. The Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ), commonly called the ‘Law Courts’, is a court building in London which houses the High Court and Court of Appeal of England and Wales plus ordinary courts, mainly of civil jurisdiction.  The RCJ is a magnificent building, dating back to the 19th century, comprising of some eighty court rooms, most of the ‘civil’. The building was designed by George Edmund Street (1824 – 1881), who died before it was completed. The RCJ it is a large grey stone edifice in the Victorian Gothic style built in the 1870s and opened by Queen Victoria on 4 December in 1882.

In the early 1870s, Parliament paid £1,453,000 for the 6-acre (24,000 m 2 ) site. 450 houses had to be demolished at that time to make way for the new law court building. The building was paid for by cash accumulated in court from the estates of the intestate to the sum of £700,000. Oak work and fittings in the court cost a further £70,000 and with decoration and furnishing the total cost for the building came to under £1 million. The dimensions of the building are: 470 feet (140 m) from east to west; 460 feet (140 m) from north to south; 245 feet (75 m) from the Strand level to the tip of the fleche.

Today, the RCJ is one of the largest courts in Europe, located on Strand within the City of Westminster (WC2A 2LL), near the border with the City of London (Temple Bar). It is surrounded by the four Inns of Court, St Clement Danes church, The Australian High Commission, King’s College London and the London School of Economics. The nearest London Underground stations are Chancery Lane and Temple – though it is a nice walk from NCH at Bedford Square.

The only criminal hearings are criminal appeals and take place in a grand courtroom (where a great deal of TV and movie filming takes place at weekends). Some high-profile cases take place here and you might see camera crews and reporters outside the main entrance on any given day.

Opening hours:

  • Court building open: Monday to Friday 9am to 4:30pm
  • Court counter open: 10am to 4:30pm.

You must go through security every time you enter a court or tribunal building. Allow extra time to go through security. You may have to queue between 9am and 10am on weekdays. What can you take into the RCJ? You can take in phones and cameras, but you must not take photos or make videos with them. Items you’re not allowed to take in include glass bottles, guns, firearms, knives or other weapons (including scissors) into the building. The staff at the enquiry desk are usually very helpful if you actually wish to sit in on a case. You can ask them for suggestions, such as a contract case, an administrative (judicial review) case, tort or defamation (libel) cases, or a criminal appeal. If you are just visiting the building (which looks like a wonderful castle) then this is your suggested guide through the building:

  1. Entering through the main gates on the Strand, you pass under two elaborately carved porches fitted with iron gates. The carving over the outer porch consists of heads of the most eminent judges and lawyers. Over the highest point of the upper arch is a figure of Jesus; to the left and right at a lower level are figures of Solomon and Alfred the Great; that of Moses is at the northern front of the building. Also, at the northern front, over the judges’ entrance are a stone cat and dog representing fighting litigants in court.
  2. From the Enquiry Desk walk down the left hand side of the Main Hall. Stop by the small balcony on the left & take a moment to enjoy your surroundings.
  3. On either side are gateways leading to different courts and to jury and witness rooms from which separate staircases are provided for them to reach their boxes in court. During the 1960s, jury rooms in the basement area were converted to courtrooms. At either end of the hall are handsome marble galleries from which the entire Main Hall can be viewed.
  4. Walk to the back of the Main Hall, staying on the left hand side. Look at the last portrait on your left, which is of one of the Fire Judges. Walk on to the large statue at the end of the Main Hall, which is of Lord Russell of Killowen.
  5. Now go through the arch on your immediate right and up the short flight of steps into the Crypt Corridor. Stop at the top of the steps. The Café is to the front on the left and is open from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm Monday – Friday. Whilst here note also the two ornately carved pillars, which you can see to your front on the right.
  6. Turn around to go back into the Main Hall. As you do so notice the unfinished pillar between the two arches.
  7. Pass through the left arch. Immediately to your left is the entrance to the cells and behind you is the bust of Queen Victoria.
  8. Continue down the left side of the Main Hall and stop midway at the statue of William Blackstone.
  9. Walk on passing to the left of the Enquiry Desk where you will find a memorial to George Edmund Street.
  10. Walk on a short way and go up the small flight of stairs on the left, past the small costume display. We will come to our main costume display later.
  11. Follow the corridor round to the right and then up the large flight of stairs on your left, signposted “East Block, Bear Garden & Courts 1-10”.
  12. Turn left at the top then go up another small flight of stairs. Walk down the corridor and go through the double doors passing the black lift on your left and following signs for the Bear Garden.
  13. Go through the Painted Room into the Bear Garden noticing the two architectural drawings that were alternative designs for the Royal Courts of Justice.
  14. Retrace your steps past the black lift to the main court corridor, which houses some of the original courtrooms. Stop by the sign for Court 10.
  15. Now turn left past court 10, then carry straight on through two sets of doors (you are going over the Main Hall) and turn right by Court 11.
  16. Walk down the length of the corridor passing the Lord Chancellor’s Court, Court 15 on your left.
  17. Continue down the corridor until you see the sign for Court 18 and then turn right.
  18. Walk past Court 19 and go through the double doors into the main costume gallery.
  19. Pass through the doorway by the bust of Lord Taylor of Gosforth. Notice the unusual statue of Lord Woolf.
  20. Finish your walk around the Royal Courts of Justice by turning right past Court 4 and taking any of the open staircases down to the Main Hall, back to where you started.
  21. Once back home look up all the famous judges and names you witnessed during your visit. No doubt you will read law reports during your legal study featuring some of these judges’ names.

And if you wish to explore further…

The first extension was the West Green building, for which plans were drawn up in 1910; the space was for extra divorce courts. They were the first rooms at the Courts to have modern air conditioning and tape recording in their original design. The next new building was the Queen’s Building, opened in 1968, providing a further 12 courts. This building used to contain cells in its basement. It was intended that these courts could be used for criminal matters; however, they are now primarily used for family proceedings (which you cannot attend). The 11-storey Thomas More Building was built to house the Bankruptcy and Companies Courts with associated offices. A semi-panorama is possible from the top floor to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey – which you should also visit) in the City of London. Further courts are at the Rolls Building, a short distance away just off of Fetter Lane, where intellectual property cases are usually heard.

If you intend to observe an actual court or tribunal hearing it is best you prepare for your visit by going on the RCJ website.

I hope you enjoy your visit.