Impressions of a Supreme Court visit

Not too long after my last post regarding the UK Supreme Court, I had the opportunity to visit the Court myself and see one of the justices mentioned in the Guardian overview linked below, ‘in action’ (so to speak). A friend of mine was the organiser of the United Kingdom Law Student’s Association (UKLSA) Mooting Competition and he had asked me, on short notice, to stand in as  a time-keeper for some of the moots during the knock-out stages. The quarter-finals and semi-finals were held at the Inner Temple Library in the morning but the highly anticipated final was hosted at the top floor of the Supreme Court building in the afternoon.

Unfortunately (especially as a time-keeper!) I arrived for the final a few minutes late but even then I couldn’t help but be taken in by the environs of the Supreme Court. Located in close proximity to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, it is easy to unknowingly slip past the Supreme Court but , according to a pamphlet that I collected from the reception of the Court, the building is a “Grade II listed building, situated on a site closely linked with justice and the law for nearly a millennium.”To provide a bit more background:

“The present building was completed in 1913 and is the third courthouse of Guildhall to be built on the site since 1807. The building was designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in a neo-gothic style.

Up to 1965, Middlesex County used the building for their administration and for council meetings. Following the creation of the Greater London Council, the building remained home to the County’s Court of Quarter Sessions; after the Courts Act 1971, the building became a Crown Court. During the 1980s a range of internal reordering created seven courts, with cells and jury rooms, all of which obscured many of the original features.

When the building was chosen as the most appropriate home for the Supreme Court, a major renovation operation took place to restore the building to its former grandeur.

Outside the relief frieze depicting historical scenes (including King John handing the Magna Carta to the barons at Runnymede) was thoroughly cleaned, while inside the impressive plaster ceilings were repainted to recreate the illusion of stonework.” (The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Visitor’s Guide and Map to the Building)

As is the case with other major buildings in England (and indeed across Europe) associated with law and governance, the carved artifices remind us of the body politic and is redolent with history.

I nervously stepped into the courtroom and manage to avoid a glance from the presiding judge, who is deeply engrossed in the speech of the Lead Appellant. I position myself at the back of the courtroom, among the numerous mahogany benches. The Courtroom is a curious mix of modern and old, with bright almost garish carpeting and leather ‘executive’ chairs for the justices but also containing vaulted ceilings with painted Angels and well-varnished benches with arms carved with Greyhounds and Lions and the faces of former Monarchs. The walls were bedecked with larger-than-life portraits of illustrious members of the legal community – Lord Bingham, Sir Montagu Sharpe QC, Sir John Fielding, etc.

As you can imagine, while swallowing all of this in, I paid scant attention to the moot, especially as it was on the same legal problem as the quarter- and semi-finals. Lord Sumption – yes, the newest justice of the Supreme Court and the first Barrister to be raised to the Supreme Court Bench without being a full-time member of the judiciary – after a moment or two of deliberation delivered a verdict. I got the impression that he wasn’t particularly impressed with the moot as he gave mooting advice, rather than spending time on a judgment. He said that admissions should have an ‘entertainment quality’ and that a judge should not be sure how the advocate will end their submissions. He stressed that it is important to keep judges on their toes so as to retain their attention. This may be true of the Supreme Court but I have heard throughout the BPTC that judges, at least at lower levels, prefer certainty and a gist of the advocate’s arguments even before he/she starts speaking! In any case, a word of wisdom for the future from one of the greatest Barristers alive.

That about sums up my experience of visiting the Supreme Court and I would recommend any budding Barrister to visit the building if they are around Westminster and have an hour free.

Inside the Court Room under the portrait of Lord Bingham
Inside the Court Building by the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II