Adam Neal ’15 – Based on our mixed luck with presentations so far, Likai and I still weren’t sure about how our presentation would turn out, even as we passed through security into the Royal Courts of Justice. We had done as much research as we could about the building itself, its organization and function, but we couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that we would be silenced abruptly like Patrick and Michael were at the Tower of London.
There are few buildings that can truly be called majestic, but the Royal Courts of Justice have more than earned the description. As soon as you enter the building, it opens up into a great hall, whose floor is littered with mosaic designs, with large columned walls that extend almost twenty meters up, interrupted only by elevated stain-glass windows decorated with many colorful coat-of-arms. Combined with its high pointed arches and sweeping flying buttresses, the RCJ is a textbook example of a Neo-Gothic style cathedral, an apt comparison given that the architect who was commissioned to build it, Sir George Edmund Street, thought he was designing one at the time. Buildings like the RCJ are one the best things about London: humility that comes with being in the presence of such famous and venerable institutions, ones which seem to defy the effects of time and history.
The building was opened in 1882 by Queen Victoria, who believed that the different courts across the nation needed to be consolidated into one location (to an extent). This integration was an important step in the continuation of the merging between common law and equity in England, an important theme to which we have often returned during both class and this trip. The common law courts merged into the High Court in 1875, while the Chancery/equity courts merged in 1875.
After meeting our tour guide, he took us into court room 7, one of the original and oldest courtrooms in the building. Even though some of us had already been inside in order to listen to cases, it was still worth noting how small these courtrooms were in comparison to what we’re used to seeing in the States.
After discovering that we had done some research on the RCJ already, our tour guide very graciously allowed me and Likai to present some of our findings on the building, from the desk of the court clerk and stenographer no less. Despite being neither of those, we managed to surprise the tour guide, accidentally jumping ahead of his planned remarks on several occasions.
The most distinguishing feature of the RCJ as an institution must be its distinct division of labor. Of the main divisions, first is Chancery, which handles business, trade, and industry disputes. Second is Queen’s Bench handling large commercial disputes and civil wrongs, and finally Family with divorce, custody, etc. There is also the Administrative Court, which handles judicial review. You won’t see any criminal cases being handled at the RCJ unless an already convicted criminal is appealing a decision. It was also interesting to learn that there are no jury trials at the RCJ, with however the exception of libel and slander cases.
Learning and (more importantly) seeing practically every detail, from who sits where in the courtroom and different official garb to the little quirks in the building’s construction really made the Royal Courts of Justice come alive as a living, working legal organism. Seeing barristers in action also greatly expounded upon the talks we had earlier in the week, and really placed what we learned in a modern, practice-instead-of-preach light.