If you’re interested in the British justice system, I’d recommend the Legal London Tour with Tim Wood, a former crime journalist. We were due to meet outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand and despite there being people and placards at the entrance as a women with Down’s syndrome had just lost an abortion appeal, twenty of us found Tim at 11am.
Having gone through airport security style screening, and being told photographs were not allowed inside, we were advised this would be the last opportunity for a loo stop on the two-hour tour.
Tim told us the building’s design was reminiscent of a cathedral in both style and scale with grand gothic arches, stained-glass windows bearing the coats of arms of Lord Chancellors and keepers of the Great Seal, and a mosaic marble floor. There was a statue of the architect, George Edward Street, who died before the building was opened in 1882. His untimely death at the age of 57, was said to be from stress.
The tour took us up and down stairs and along corridors to the ‘Costume Museum’ with glass cases filled with robes and wigs from various eras. Tim explained the history of the wearing of wigs, and how a barristers horse hair wig, can cost up to £500, and how new barristers will sweep dusty shelves with their wigs, to make the wig look older and the person more experienced. Vegan wigs, made from natural fibres are now becoming popular.
We took in the interestingly named Bear Garden and heard that when Queen Victoria opened the building the room the noise was so intense and reminiscent of the atmosphere at a bear baiting contest, she said it was like a bear garden. Having passed court room 14, where the Wagatha Christie case was heard, we went into a court room and were just in time to hear the judge’s 20-minute pronouncement. The prisoner who was beamed in from the prison, was told that his appeal against a 5-year term for two burglaries was not upheld. We thought this fitting bearing in mind he had 125 previous convictions.
Leaving the RCJ behind, we headed out to Lincoln’s Inn, one of four Inns of Court, where we strolled through the pleasant, green gardens with Tim pointing out the various areas.
Fortunately the November weather was kind as it was then a 10-minute walk to the Old Bailey (or Central Criminal Court to use its proper title). Here Tim told us all about Newgate Prison which had been located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey Street. He had lots of stories from various eras ranging from the boiling alive of the Bishop of Rochester’s cook, to more recent distressing cases he’d covered as a reporter.
Whilst a visit inside the Old Bailey is not included, we were told how we could gain access to the public gallery, the protocols to be observed, and more importantly, which shops and pubs would store large bags and/or mobile phones as neither are permitted inside.
After a swift drink in the nearby Viaduct Tavern, we joined the queue for the 2pm post lunch session. Having given way to friends and family of the convicted, we were allowed in and found security very tight. Although Tim had provided the case listings, some courts were not in operation, and we had to keep climbing stairs as the courts are located over three floors. But the staff were friendly and helpful and guided us to a functioning court which had space in the public gallery. Unfortunately it was a rather tedious pre-trial hearing with a discussion centering around admissible evidence, and it was difficult to hear. Although we’d been told to stay for at least 30 minutes to avoid too much disruption, bearing in mind we were at the far end of the narrow row, we stayed put until the judge decided it was the end of the day and the court was adjourned. However, the afternoon certainly gave me a taste of how the system operates and I cannot wait to return.
The tour costs £15 /£10 for over 65s but access to the Old Bailey is free.