The Supreme Court is a recent phenomenon in the UK, having only been operating since 2009. Housed in the Middlesex Guildhall near the Houses of Parliament, the Court buildings house three courtrooms and an exhibition. Few people know that people can visit the Supreme Court for free, whenever the building is open.
This amazing deep relief frieze is part of a longer one which has imagery of King John at Runnymeade, sealing the Magna Carta which shows even he is not above the law. There are statues of women representing ideals such as truth, law, government and justice. It was created by Henry Fehr, a London architectural sculptor.
There have been legal buildings on this site in Parliament Square for nearly 1000 years. Before that, it was the location for the Westminster Abbey’s Old Belfry and Sanctuary Tower, which was used by fugitives seeking refuge. A series of courthouses then stood on the site and in 1889 the first Guildhall was built. This housed Middlesex County Council and Quarter Sessions (local court sessions held four times a year) until the building became too small for use. A second, neo-Tudor Guildhall was built in 1893.
The building which stands there today, the third Guildhall, was built in 1906 and opened just before World War I in 1913. It was designed by architect James Gibson and built from Portland stone, with decorative features by Henry Fehr. It is often described as Art Nouveau Gothic.
These art nouveau features provide a decorative touch to what could be a rather modern and simplistic interior.
By 1964, due to the London Government Act, Middlesex ceased to exist as an administrative and judicial entity and the Guildhall was converted to a Crown court. The building was cramped and the rooms had little light, as various extensions and bits of machinery obscured the building.
The Law Lords, who were the highest legal power in the UK, were originally housed in the House of Lords, but a decision was taken in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to separate the law from parliament, keeping the judicial and legislative functions apart both physically and symbolically.
During World War II, the building was used by the judiciary of five governments in exile to hold their own courts to deal with military and maritime offences. The Netherlands, Poland, Norway, Belgium and Greece are all represented on this document.
The building then went through some very controversial renovations, with many people up in arms about the plans. The building is Grade II listed and the courtroom interiors were considered to be exceptional examples of their type. However, the renovations went ahead and while many original fixtures and fittings were found and enhanced during the work, others were lost.
Inside Courtroom One, the largest and most impressive of the courts. Photograph © David Iliff.
In 2009, the Supreme Court heard its first case. Its role is as an authority on interpreting the law which the rest of the judicial system must follow. Unlike in many other countries, the Supreme Court cannot overturn primary legislation made by the government, only secondary. The government doesn’t have to agree to the changes, but can incorporate them into law if wished.
The court can decide which cases it hears and always selects those that are considered to be of national importance. Adjudicating on cases that are considered to be Rule of Law, the principle that all legal decisions are taken according to an accepted set of rules which are consistently applied.
Inside Courtroom Two which was created out of two other courtrooms. It has high ceilings, is very modern and is apparently the preferred courtroom of the current sitting judges.
There are 12 justices, who don’t all adjudicate on every case, with usually just 3 or 5 hearing a case. There is always an odd number of them so that a majority verdict can be reached. On rare occasions and matters of great significance, the number of judges will increase. Only twice has there been the maximum of 11 judges, both times Brexit related. On the day of a hearing, teams of lawyers will present their cases to the panel, setting out the legal arguments on both sides. The cases are usually filmed and are often broadcast on national television.
Courtroom Three is generally used by the Court of the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal for British territories and Commonwealth countries.
In the interests of transparency, the Supreme Court is open and free for all visitors, although you cannot always go in the courtrooms, depending on what is happening. On the lower ground floor is a permanent exhibition which has artefacts from its days as Middlesex County Council Guildhall, but also a lot of information about the court, how it is set up and how it works.
The exhibition area is small but informative and helpful in learning more about the Supreme Court and the building.
There are some interesting artefacts on display, but what is most fascinating are two interactive screens where you can sit and learn about some of the cases that have been heard at the court. You get given the background and asked what decision you would make, then told if the judges voted the same way as you, and what the implications were for the law in the country. It is easy to while away some time here trying all the cases and making decisions on whether Prince Charles should have had his private documents published, if a father should have been fined for taking his daughter on holiday in term time, if immigrants should be returned to their native country if they are under threat and several other cases.
This stylised version of the court logo appears in various places throughout the courthouse. It has the English rose, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh leek and the Northern Irish flax flower. This is outside Courtroom One.
Visiting The Supreme Court, London
Monday – Friday 09h30 – 16h30
Entrance is Free
You will need to go through an airport style security check before you are allowed in the building.
Nearest tube station: Westminster Bridge