I appreciate that spending a day in court is a very weird thing to put on a wishlist, especially to my friends who are lawyers. It’s probably even weirder to take a day of precious annual leave to do so, but that’s what I did and it was one of the most interesting days I’ve spent in a long time. Courts have public galleries as part of the right to a fair trial, and anyone can go along and watch (almost) any case that they are interested in. I’ve got most of my knowledge of trials from media reports, trashy American dramas and terrible Victorian literature, so I thought it might be worthwhile to see what being in an actual court was like.
I visited two different courts on a very, very cold and dreary Monday. They are probably the most famous courts in the UK: The Central Criminal Court (also known as the Old Bailey) and the Royal Courts of Justice. I would definitely recommend going along to both, but I wish I’d been able to spend more than half a day in each court. I’m going to have to go back soon, it would be great to follow the progress of a trial over a number of days.
The Old Bailey
This is not a beautiful building – well, not to me anyway. I’m sure someone will explain to me that it is in fact an architectural masterpiece… Here’s the truest representation of what it looks like that I could find on Google: it’s a bit grey and a bit grim.
One useful thing to note is that you can look at the daily court lists on the Old Bailey website which is helpful when thinking about what type of trials you’ll be interested in observing. I knew I didn’t want to go along to any terror-related trials in case it increased my London paranoia!
You aren’t allowed any electronic equipment, food or drink, or large bags in the building but you can leave your stuff at the travel agent down the road for a small fee (which is what I did). There are three floors of courts and an official on every floor who can advise you which trials you can go into if you arrive after they’ve started. All of the staff I encountered were really polite and friendly and very happy to talk me through where I could go, how the courts functioned etc.
I briefly watched a fraud trial (they had a break after about ten minutes which was lucky as it was pretty boring) and then I sat in the public gallery of a murder trial for about two hours. Incredibly harrowing stuff and I felt so sorry for the family members in the public gallery with me, who looked overwhelmed by the whole thing. It was so amazingly interesting to see how a trial actually takes place and (I appreciate this sounds really banal) just how much work has clearly gone into a case before it gets to the courtroom. I’ll be following the outcome of the murder trial as it was quite a complex case with multiple charges.
After a quick lunch I made my way down the Strand to meet David at..
The Royal Courts of Justice
…which could not be more different appearance-wise. What a bloody stunning building. I could have spent days wandering around this place. It’s incredible. No photos allowed inside but here’s a quick snap of part of the main entrance: you can see how detailed everything is.
I completely lucked out by going along with David because 1. as a lawyer he could choose a case for us to observe, 2. he is the fountain of all knowledge architecture/history wise so could tell me about the building, and 3. it was awesome to be able to discuss the trial with someone afterwards, and see if we had the same opinion based on what we’d seen (we did!).
As with the Old Bailey, you can see a daily list of what trials are happening. Why is it called a cause list here and not a case list? I have no idea! At the Royal Courts I learned another thing which is probably incredibly obvious to most people: there’s no jury in non-criminal cases. Anyway. We sat in on a financial dispute case which was so different to what I’d seen in the morning: it was a lot more to do with semantics and contract clauses and pretty sneaky stuff. I truly found it just as interesting, which surprised me, and it was particularly fascinating to watch a cross-examination.
The Royal Courts of Justice are slightly more relaxed than the Old Bailey: you can take in your phone (as long as you don’t use it!) and a bottle of water as well. I found it odd that the public galleries aren’t used as much here, instead you sit in the actual courtroom itself. Kind of cool though!
If you’ve got to the end of this very lengthy post I think you’ll have definitely got the impression that I absolutely loved spending a day in court!! It was really educational and I’ve already been recommending it to anyone who will listen. Thank you so much for coming along and answering all of my naive questions David! x