The Royal Courts of Justice, commonly called the Law Courts, is a court building in London which houses the High Court and Court of Appeal of England and Wales. The High Court also sits on circuit and in other major cities. For centuries these courts were located in Westminster Hall but in the 19th century a new purpose built structure was seen as needed. Designed by George Edmund Street, who died before it was completed, it is a large grey stone edifice in the Victorian Gothic style built in the 1870s and opened by Queen Victoria in 1882. It is one of the largest courts in Europe. It is located on Strand within the City of Westminster, 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.
The courts within the building are generally open to the public with some access restrictions depending upon the nature of the cases being heard. Those in court who do not have legal representation may receive some assistance within the building. A Citizens Advice Bureau is based in the Main Hall which provides free, confidential and impartial advice by appointment to litigants-in-person. There is also an office of the Personal Support Unit where litigants-in-person can receive emotional support and practical information about court proceedings.
The search for a design for the Law Courts was by way of a competition, a then-common approach to selecting a design and an architect. The competition ran from 1866 to 1867 and the twelve architects competing for the contract each submitted designs for the site. In 1868 it was finally decided that George Edmund Street was the winner. Building was started in 1873 by Messrs Bull & Sons of Southampton. Its masons led a serious strike at an early stage which threatened to extend to the other trades and caused a temporary stoppage of the works. In consequence, foreign workmen were brought in - mostly Germans. This aroused bitter hostility on the part of the men on strike, and the newcomers had to be housed and fed within the building. However, these disputes were eventually settled and the building took eight years to complete; it was officially opened by Queen Victoria on 4 December 1882. Street died before the building was opened, overcome by the work. Much of the preparatory legal work was completed by Edwin Wilkins Field including promotion of the Courts of Justice Building Act of 1865 and the Courts of Justice Concentration (Site) Act of 1865. A statue of Field stands in the building.
Parliament paid £1,453,000 for the 6-acre (24,000 m2) site upon which 450 houses had to be demolished. 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 (in round figures) 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.
Entering through the main gates on the Strand, one passes 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.
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.
The walls and ceilings (of the older, original courts) are panelled in oak which in many cases is elaborately carved. In Court 4, the Lord Chief Justice's court, is an elaborately carved wooden royal coat of arms, salvaged from the fire that destroyed the original Palace of Westminster. Each court has an interior unique to itself. The grand hall is magnificent in architectural style and huge in size.
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 architect was Sir Henry Tanner.
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.
The 11-storey Thomas More Building was built to house the Bankruptcy and Companies Courts with associated offices. When the courts of the Chancery Division moved to the new Rolls Building, it was taken by the Central London County Court. A semi-panorama is possible from the top floor to St Paul's Cathedral and the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) in the City of London.
Further courts are at the Rolls Building, a short distance away just off of Fetter Lane
The Thomas More Courts are 12 courts for the Chancery Division, which opened in January 1990. The Thomas More Building has become the County Court at Central London, in the lower tier of hierarchy, not part of the High Court or Court of Appeal. Vacant land for horizontal extensions is minimal and proximity to natural light from various windows, coupled with a long-standing consensus to remain relatively low-rise among the older Courts, restricts vertical extension. Full refurbishment of the east block took place during 1994-95, which provided 14 extra courts for the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal and two extra large courts which are unassigned and will be used for cases having multiple parties or an unusually large number of documents and books.
Anyone is allowed to watch, free of charge, most of the trials and hearings that are taking place; the main exception is family cases such as proceedings concerning children which are held in private.
The original conditions for the competition for the design of the law courts required separate entry and circulation systems for the public, the lawyers and the judges. The great circular towers on either side of the front entrance (now closed) gave access to the public galleries at the back of the court rooms. The main front entrance gave access to the lawyers, who were expected to circulate and confer in the great hall as they had in Westminster Hall (although they did not, in fact, tend to do so) when not in court. The main entrances for judges were two doors in Carey Street (to the north of the site) and two doors from entrance courts on the west and east (now known as West Green and the Quadrangle respectively). Since the site slopes dramatically down (towards the river Thames) from north to south, the court rooms are at ground level when approached from the north entrances in Carey Street and at first floor level when approached from the main entrance in the south on to the Strand. Originally, access from the main central hall to this level was by circular staircases well back from the hall, but this was inconvenient and an early modification was the construction of steep flights of stairs to first floor (court) level directly from the concourse of the main hall on its west and east sides, and a new staircase on the north west side.
The decades during which designs for the law courts were being commissioned, judged, modified and put into construction were times of great change in the organisation of the English civil courts which were the principal courts to be housed there. Thus, originally, it was expected that equity court rooms would be different in appearance from chancery court rooms, but after construction began and before it was completed these courts were fused. Street took the opportunity to make every individual court room different in its internal decoration, instead of grouped into styles common to several. This remains the case; with every court having its own design of panelling, window lead designs, and carving, both in wood and stone.
Since the opening of the law courts, there has been further change from time to time in the organisation and location of courts from the various divisions of the High Court within and (in the later 20th and early 21st centuries, notably with the construction of the Rolls Building) outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. Hence, the courtrooms have housed different types of hearing during their history. One which has remained relatively stable is Court 4, which remains particularly associated with the court of the Lord Chief Justice and is the main court used for ceremonial occasions such as the admission of new silks (Queen's Counsel) and the swearing in of newly appointed High Court judges.
A snapshot of the numbering and allocation of the court rooms is contained in Sir Robert Megarry's article in Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1971), pp. 274-280 entitled "A Visiting Lawyer's London: A Note". This records that in 1970 the courts were renumbered from 1-50, the numbering starting at the north centre point of the main building (the nearest to the Carey Street entrances in the north and the furthest from the main entrance in the Stand) and working round clockwise. This numbering has been retained.
Megarry notes that Courts 1 to 19 are the original courts which Queen Victoria opened in 1882, with one added later by conversion. They lie on the four sides of a rectangle round the great Main Hall of the Law Courts, at first floor level.
He notes that Courts 20 to 25 were opened in 1963. They were formed in spaces previously occupied by jury rooms, the number of jury trials having dropped considerably after the First World War (jury trials now almost never take place in civil actions). They are of a much plainer appearance that the original Street courtrooms and, because of their location, have no natural light, whereas the Street courtrooms are lit both from the top and the sides by skylights and stone windows.
Megarry notes that Courts 33 to 38 are in the Western Extension, now known as West Green Building, and were opened in 1913. They are therefore the oldest courts after the original Courts 1-19.
He records that Courts 39 to 50 are in the new Queen's Building directly north of the West Green Building and are on 3 floors of that building. They were opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968.
That leaves 7 courts which Megarry notes as then (1970) being outside the main blocks of the courts around the main hall, and the courts in the West Green Building and the Queen's Building. They were Courts 26 and 27 (described by Megarry as "in "temporary" wooden structures in the East Quadrangle"), Courts 28-30 (on upper floors of the main block), and Courts 31 and 32 (on upper floors of the West Green Building). However, since 1970, new courts have been constructed in the East Block adjoining Bell Yard (a north-south street marking the eastern boundary of the law courts' precincts) from areas originally used only for administrative offices.
At the time of Megarry's article, Courts 1-6 were used by the Court of Appeal (which is now housed in the new courts in the East Block, except when hearing criminal appeals), Courts 7-14 and 20-23 and 26 were used by the Queen's Bench Division, and Courts 15-19 and 27 were used by the Chancery Division, including Court 15 which is designated as the Lord Chancellor's Court and Court 16 which is designated as the Vice Chancellor's Court. However, the Chancery Division later moved to the Thomas More Building and is now housed in the Rolls Building; the Lord Chancellor no longer sits as a judge and the Vice Chancellor (redesignated as the Chancellor) is now based with the other Chancery judges in the Rolls Building. Megarry noted that the other courts used by Chancery judges in 1970 were Courts 24 and 25 (the former jury areas), 27 (an East Quandrangle temporary structure), and 39 and 40 (in the Queen's Building).
Megarry noted that the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal usually used Court 4 (the Lord Chief Justice's Court) and one other court. The Civil Division of the Court of Appeal used Court 3 (the Master of the Rolls' Court) and three other courts.
Megarry records that Courts 28-30 were in 1970 used by three Official Referees. Their work is now done by the Technology and Construction Court which sits in the Rolls Building.
Courts 33-38 in the West Green building and Courts 39-50 in the Queen's Building (except the Chancery courts then accustomed to sitting in Courts 39 and 40) were recorded by Megarry as in use by the Probate Divorce and Admiralty Division and are still used by its successor, the Family Division.
The courts around the main hall of the Royal Courts of Justice are now used mostly by judges in the Queen's Bench Division, hearing Queen's Bench and Administrative Court cases, and (in and around Court 4) by the Court of Appeal Criminal Division and the Divisional Court. The courts in the Queen's Building and West Green Building are mostly used by judges in the Family Division. The courts in the East Block are used by the Court of Appeal civil division.
A special court now designated as Court 37 hears urgent, unlisted cases (the Interim Applications Court) before a High Court Judge, usually of the Queen's Bench Division. These cases were formerly heard in chambers (rooms occupied by judges and masters, including for hearing, but not set up for witnesses or jurors) around the Bear Garden (at first floor level at the south east end of the great hall) but were then moved to a court in the Queen's Building so that the judge would be further away from the litigants, often in person, for security reasons. Court 37 now takes these cases in a location in a basement of the Queen's Building which is close to the desk from which urgent applications have to be issued.
The Bear Garden, at first floor level to the south west of the main hall, was designed as a waiting area for parties appearing in the judges' and masters' chambers adjacent to it and it is still used for that purpose.
Next to the Bear Garden is the Painted Chamber, with original decorations and a large fireplace designed by Street. This was originally intended as a Bar Common Room but is now an area for waiting and conferences used as an overspill from the Bear Garden which connects to it.
On the north side of the building, above the main entrance from Carey Street, is a vaulted library with murals of the arms of the Inns of Court (originally the Bar library) connected by a gallery to another library (originally the Probate library). Before photocopying, members of the Bar and other lawyers needed these libraries for books required for hearings but in the late 1980s most barristers' chambers relied on their own libraries, and photocopying, and the Bar ended its funding for these libraries in 1987. They were then adopted by the judges, who still maintain and use them as reference libraries.