A Setting for Justice

David Wurtzel provides a guided tour of inside the new building

However much it cost, the Supreme Court building (formerly the Middlesex Guildhall) provides a splendid home for a new institution. Whether you are public, barristers, staff or the Justices, you can see where the money went. Those who knew it in its criminal court days will be glad that English Heritage insisted on retaining a substantial part of the interior. This includes the art nouveau light fittings, the tiled walls, some panelling and furniture and the paintings and sculpture. The latter have been cleaned and rearranged: the bust of the bon vivant Edward VII no longer greets you as you enter but now watches over the public canteen.


Design and decoration

In some places the combination of old and new produces its surprises. Many rooms, their decoratively unimportant predecessors having been gutted, were created from scratch in a style which, although luxurious, is manifestly contemporary and as far away from the House of Lords as you can get. Other rooms, where some decorative elements were retained, give clear hints that they used to be something else. This is particularly true in the Justices’ library. It is a fine, modern room, soaring up from the basement to the first floor, with a three-quarters-round balcony area. Look up though and there is still the wonderful plaster fan vaulted ceiling, with the surviving upper panelling from the old court 1.

From the moment one walks into the building there is a combination of transparency and didacticism. As you arrive in the lobby, you are faced with a wall of glass etched with the judicial oath. Court 2, the only one not adapted from a pre-existing courtroom, is approached via another floor to ceiling glass wall. Etched on both sides—one for the public to see, and one in the sightline of the justices—is “Justice cannot be for one side alone but must be for both”. The Justices’ library is particularly adorned with quotations—“Where is there any book of the law so clear to each man as that written in his heart” and “Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident” are two of them.

Court 1—the largest court which can take a panel of nine—and court 3—reserved for Privy Council hearings—are respectively the old council chamber and the old court 2. Ceilings, panelling, portraits and balconied public galleries remain but the floors have been levelled, and the old court furniture has vanished apart from some of the old council chamber benches which now provide public seating. The gothic superstructure which used to be above the judge’s chair in the council chamber now rests in a balcony. Discreet television cameras are there at the ready. Throughout the building is the carpet designed by Peter Blake with repeating full colour versions of the logo—a roundel with the rose, thistle, flax and leek (though the latter is not quite recognisable as such). In court 3 there is a removable rug with the royal coat of arms.

Other rooms will be more recognisable to those who knew the building in its earlier incarnation. The panelled library, with the fretwork glass cabinets, has become the Chief Executive’s office; counsel’s dining room is now used by the Justices; and barristers who once crowded into a small robing room have expanded into an enormous room facing Parliament Square on the first floor, complete with long tables and a huge set of elaborately carved 19th Century dining chairs.

One of the most successful additions in the remodelling of the building has been the glassing in of the old light wells. In one this provides space for the public canteen on the basement level, near the new exhibition space, and, in the other, there is more accommodation for the library staff. At the top of the staircase bay and just under the glass ceiling is a balcony lounge for the Justices. It all creates a light and airy building for those who work there. This being 2009, the staff have cycle racks and showers in the basement.


Administration of justice

What about the justices themselves? I spoke to Lord Brown who as a young barrister appeared in the building before the legendary and fearsome Ewan Montagu. Although he enjoyed working in the Palace of Westminster, he confirmed that the new court is proving to be “an extremely pleasant and efficient working environment”. The Justices have much larger rooms than in the House of Lords and arranged over two floors. This does mean though that there is less bumping into one another than there used to be in the former Law Lords’ corridor. One drawback is that the air system is so well controlled, one cannot open the windows. Gone now are the days when an old Daimler used to transport them from the House of Lords to the Privy Council, where they heard cases in Sir John Soane’s superb court room. The latter has been take into use by 10 Downing Street and he hopes very much that it will remain intact.
Despite the speculation in the media, Lord Brown sees no reason for the Supreme Court to assume a different role. “No one has doubted our independence from the other arms of government” and they never had any hesitancy in making declarations of incompatibility when necessary. Their methods and approach will remain the same. In the first cases, counsel still called them “my Lords” though what one will call new Justices who will not be given peerages has yet to be decided. “Justice” may rank higher in the hierarchy than “Mr Justice” or “Lord Justice” but does not sound like it. 

 

The history

The Supreme Court is the former Middlesex Guildhall, an impressive building in an historic location directly linked with justice and the law for nearly a millennium.

Long before the earliest courthouse was built here, the site was occupied by Westminster Abbey’s Sanctuary Tower and Old Belfry, where fugitives could seek refuge from their pursuers on an island at the junction of the Tyburn and the Thames.
In 1889 the old courthouse was replaced by the first Middlesex Guildhall, which housed the Middlesex County Council and Quarter Sessions. The present building opened its doors just before the first world war in 1913.  Designed by architect James Gibson, and built in Portland stone, it features a great deal of internal and external decorative work by Henry Fehr and was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as art nouveau Gothic.

In 1964 Middlesex ceased to exist as an administrative and judicial area, and the Guildhall was converted in the 1980s to a Crown Court centre with seven busy criminal courtrooms. Original features were obscured by machinery, cells and partitions. Renovation work has restored many of these hidden details, including fine panelling, carving and stained glass with connections to the old county of Middlesex.
Source: www.supremecourt.gov.uk


Looking to the future

Outside the building is a pair of benches on which has been carved the poem commissioned by Baroness Hale from the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. It best sums up the future: “New structures but an old foundation stone”.  The Supreme Court is open to the public and visitors may purchase souvenirs, including Supreme Court mugs, key chains, mouse mats and of course counsel’s notebooks.

David Wurtzel is Counsel’s Consultant Editor

 

 

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