Supreme Court 1: The Court and its Building

A school group crosses in front of the Supreme Court Building in Parliament Square, London

One of the paradoxes of the UK is the way that some things stay the same for centuries and other things change at the drop of a hat.

Men in Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire have danced their peculiar Horn Dance every year since 1288, the Ceremony of the Keys has closed the Tower of London every evening for over 700 years, and my friend’s local (the pub near your house where you go all the time is your local) has walked a horse through the building on Christmas Day for so long no one seems to know when the tradition began.

But governments can change fundamental public systems at lightning speed, and in 2009 lawmakers changed the shape of the judiciary by creating a Supreme Court—just like that, without the public seeming to take much notice.

The statue outside the Supreme Court building is of Abraham Lincoln, but not for any justice-related reason; the statue has been there since the 1920s, one of several statues of statesmen (and they are all men) in Parliament Square. The most recent addition to the lineup is Nelson Mandela.

Last week I  toured the Supreme Court building, and couldn’t have been more impressed.  It’s not just that you’re allowed to go in; it’s that everything about the place is designed, purposely, to get you to come see what happens inside, from the welcoming doorman who kept trying to invite me in even though I was way too early for my tour, to the…well, I’ll get to all the rest.  In fact, I’ll get to all the rest in two different posts, there’s so much.

When it was about time for my tour, I passed by the statue of Abraham  Lincoln (see photo for explanation), and a pair of stone benches inscribed with the poem written for the first Supreme Court by then-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and let the smiling doorman sweep me through the beautiful faux-Tudor doors.  On the other side of the security checkpoint my group, members of the Friends of the British Library, were gathering for a little good-natured grousing about what had set off the metal detectors.  (In my case it was a pocket torch, that is, a flashlight.)

The main staircase, with its copper handrail. The stained glass shows the arms of various sheriffs of the county of Middlesex, leftover from when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall.

A video came first, in which Lord Phillips, President of the Court (rather than Chief Justice, as in the US) emphasized how welcome we were and how much they all wanted us to come back when we could hear the Justices discussing cases.

When we do we must be sure, said Lord Phillips (on the screen), to pick up free leaflets at the front desk that explain what the cases are about, prepared each day so the public can understand what’s going on.  A staff member later told me it’s rare to have so many spectators that they fill the courtroom; when that happens, they set up folding chairs in the lobby for the overflow, so they don’t have to turn people away.  (Somehow, I don’t see that happening at the US Supreme Court.)

Court 1, from behind the solicitors' chairs

Courtroom 1 used to be the debating chamber of the Middlesex County council when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall, Middlesex being one of the counties that was re-organized out of existence a while back in one of those changes I find astonishing.  (Can you imagine the outcry if the US government decided, for example, to merge New York and Pennsylvania, or to divide Texas?)  The room has no witness box (US: witness stand); just as in the US, the Supreme Court considers points of law and does not hear witnesses.  The room is set up for discussion, with a curved table for Justices and a curved table for barristers (lawyers), facing each other across an oval space.  Behind the barristers sit the solicitors (a different kind of lawyer; that’s a topic for another time) and behind the Justices sit their assistants, young lawyers who would be called clerks in the US.  The public sits behind the solicitors in seats like church pews, and in an elevated gallery (US: balcony), as well.

In Courtroom 1, looking up. The portraits are those leftover from Middlesex Guildhall days, the large one here showing the Duke of Wellington.

We filed out of Court 1, walking on carpet of a pattern used throughout the building, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, famous for the cover for the Beatles Sgt Pepper album.  It shows the four emblems of the countries in the United Kingdom: the leek for Wales, the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland and the flax flower for Northern Ireland (not a shamrock because the shamrock symbolizes all of Ireland, and the British Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the Republic).

The emblem of the UK Supreme Court dominates Court 2. The Tudor rose symbolizes England; the thistle, Scotland, the flax--the little blue one--for Ireland, and all are connected by the leaves of the leek, a symbol of Wales. The medallion of flowers is surrounded by the Greek letter omega, meaning the end, as the Supreme Court has the final say in the legal cases it decides.

Those four flowers (well, the leek is only represented by leaves) make up most of the crest of the Court, an emblem that dominates Court 2 (see photo).  Court 2 is double height, sleek and modern, with huge windows (one side looks out onto Westminster Abbey).  It’s light and airy, and said to be the Justices’ favorite court room.

The glass back wall of Court 2

The back wall is glass, as are several walls in the building, designed to emphasize the idea that the Supreme Court’s work is open to everyone.  Most of the new artwork in the building takes the form of quotations etched into glass walls; the one in the back of Court 2 reads “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”  Appropriately, it’s etched into the glass twice: once facing in and once facing out.  And who said it?  Eleanor Roosevelt.

The middle and upper floors of the library.

Quotations come thick and fast in the Supreme Court’s library, which isn’t ordinarily open to the public (but the magic of being with a group from the Friends of the British Library is that the doors of a lot of private libraries will open to you sooner or later).  In fact, the books have already outgrown the library, and bits of the collection are housed in nooks and crannies all over the building.  Those in the Library itself make a beautiful display, with the glass wall showing quotations from prominent people from Aristotle to Martin Luther King.  (They’re listed at the end of this post.)

Middle floor of 3-story library, looking down to the lower floor, with quotations etched in glass

And that was the tour—if you don’t count stopping for a cup of tea.  Yes, there’s a cafe in the building, and that’s open to the public, too.  It’s run by Costa—a local chain that competes with Starbucks.  If you’re in London, you can just stop in to the Supreme Court for a cappuccino, as long as you don’t mind going through security.

Costa cafe on a lower floor. Next time you're in London you can drop into the Supreme Court for coffee

The way out is through the final glass wall, which is inscribed with phrases from the oath that UK judges at all levels swear or affirm.  New judges who elect to swear can swear by Almighty God (for Christians and Jews), by Allah (for Moslems), by Gita (for Hindus) or by Guru Nanak (for Sikhs), but all of them pledge to “do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

The glass walls stand for the transparency of the judiciary, that is, for a system in which—in a phrase often used by British public figures—justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.  That is one of the reasons Parliament created the Supreme Court.  But I’ll go into that, and into the use of the third court room, in the next post.

The final door: "to do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will."

Finally, here are the quotations, chosen by the original panel of 12 Justices, for the library:

  • ‘Law is order and good law is good order’ – Aristotle
  • ‘He who commits injustice is ever more wretched than he who suffers it’ – Plato
  • ‘These having not the law are law unto themselves’ – Romans 2:14
  • ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly’ – Martin Luther King
  • ‘The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth’ – Cicero
  • ‘Justice is truth in action’ – Disraeli
  • ‘Where is there any book of law so clear to each man as that written in his heart?’ – Tolstoy
  • ‘Justice is far from being a natural concept. The closer one gets to the state of nature, the less does one find’ – Megarry
  • ‘Man is a little thing while he works by and for himself but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice he is godlike’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • ‘It is in justice that the ordering of society is centred’ – Aristotle
  • ‘Laws were made to prevent the strong from always having their way’ – Ovid
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Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

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