They were some of the year’s most exclusive tickets in London. This
autumn, for the first time, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom opened its doors to evening visitors, allowing tours of the courtrooms and the law library on just four nights.
The UK Supreme Court is housed in the old Middlesex Guildhall on the west side of Parliament Square in central London where it completes a quadrangle made up of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Treasury, representing the judicial, parliamentary, religious, and executive cornerstones of the United Kingdom.
A relative newcomer to Parliament Square, the Supreme Court was established on 1 October 2009. Until that date, the highest court of appeals in the United Kingdom was a committee in the House of Lords made up of judges called the “Law Lords”
On the other hand, the land that the building occupies has a rich legal
history. In the 11th century, the site was home to Westminster Abbey’s
Sanctuary Tower, sacred ground where fugitives could seek refuge from pursuers. During World War II, military tribunals for servicemen of
Nazi-occupied countries, such as Poland and France, were held in the
Guildhall. Later, in the 1980’s, the building was home to seven very busy criminal courts.
Today, there are only three courtrooms. Courtroom One reflects the building's 1913 origins as the Middlesex County government building. It is decorated with dark wood carvings and stained glass in a style that has been described as art nouveau gothic.
Courtroom Two is much more modern in style, matching the carpet, which was designed by Peter Blake, better known for his work on the Beatles' Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. A third courtroom is home to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is the final court of appeal for the United Kingdom’s independent Commonwealth countries. In the 1930s, this committee’s jurisdiction was said to span more than a quarter of the globe.
All three courtrooms are smaller and more intimate than might be expected for a Supreme Court. The justices sit at the same level as the lawyers presenting their cases, and the hearings are approached as discussions on points of law. Proceedings also are televised on the Supreme Court website.
The two-story law library used by the Justices is one of the most private in the United Kingdom, and the oldest reference books in the library date from the 19th century. A wood and glass balustrade running around the center of the library features quotes chosen by the first Supreme Court Justices spanning Plato to Leo Tolstoy.
Throughout the building, visitors can see variations on the Supreme Court emblem, which features a wild English rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, and a flax flower for Northern Ireland interwoven with the leaves of a leek for Wales. The Justices also reflect the countries within the United Kingdom – nine are always from England and Wales, two from Scotland, and one from Northern Ireland.
In the basement are exhibits about the Supreme Court, including a ceremonial robe designed for the Justices. Only 12 robes were made when the Court was established, so when Justices reach the mandatory retirement age of 70, they pass on their robes to their successors.
Visitors do not need to wait for the next evening tours. The general
public can visit Monday through Friday 0930-1630, and visitors are welcome to observe cases when the court is in session. There are also guided tours on most Fridays.