Yesterday we looked at the homes of the Barristers. Today it is the Judges. London is the place where more people are tried in England than anywhere else. It is also the home of the Appellate Courts – those above the first tier of judicial decision making where you appeal if you think the initial decision isn’t right.
Not everyone can appeal but if you do then the system allows two tiers. The Court of Appeal and, nowadays, the Supreme Court.
Courts are intended to be sombre serious places, ensuring that the process is given the gravity it deserves. If you are going to be hung then you’d want to know it wasn’t frivolous, wouldn’t you?
This is Southwark Crown Court. The designer is famous for his nuclear shelters and abattoirs. I probably made that up, but really.
I mean this is Wandsworth Prison, a Victorian construct. We want our penal institutions to reflect the idea of punishment, as well as rehabilitation. Well Wandsworth gets my vote for achieving a balance of proportion. Southwark is like something dreamt up by the Coen Brothers or Terry Gilliam when envisaging hell.
More representative of this mixture of the grandiose and the grim is the Old Bailey. This is also the central criminal court.
If you have been especially foul and egregiously bad you end up here. The front entrance, pictured here is where the film crews hang out.
If you are acquitted they’ll be here for a wave and a quick sound bite. If you’re guilty it is out the back door in a blacked out van.
The Court of Appeal – and also the place where some civil cases are heard – sit in the Royal Courts of Justice. This mix of Alice in Wonderland confection and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang castle has always appeared ott to me.
The cases are open to the public – as you can see even the tour buses take a look into the courts – and it is well worth sitting in for a while. Some cases, the especially salacious ones are popular – we are a still a Nation who hankers for the lost excitement of a day at the gallows – but you’ll find somewhere to watch.
Be warned: we are talking here about lawyers talking so have a coffee first and nurture that full bladder or you might find the cleaners sweeping you out four hours later than you anticipated.
As a young lawyer it was my job to issue proceedings here on behalf of clients. We were also, as trainees, allowed to appear in front of the lowest rank of civil judges – the Masters, whose title gives these beasts in gowns a sufficiently Whovian-esque veneer of evil and perfectly describes them. We trainees were petrified of these aged, angry men. They despised us and knew we couldn’t win. The area outside the Masters’ offices – the Bear garden appropriately enough – was a place of shredded nerves, hushed whispers and recurrent bowel issues. The two I remember (Masters, not bowel issues) like it was yesterday were Masters Bickford-Smith and Ritchie. I’m sweating as I type.
If you fail here in your appeal you head off towards Parliament and the Supreme Court. When I started out the final appeal was to the House of Lords but the 1997- 2010 Labour government reformed this ancient institution which was long overdue but removed one part of the heritage we take so much for granted.
The Supreme Court, on the side of Parliament Square facing the Palace of Westminster is nice enough but rather less than its original home.
A shame if you ask me.
In some cases you can go to Strasbourg and the European Court of Justice. Well for now anyway. Meah, it’s not in London so does it really matter?
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