THE Royal Courts of Justice, commonly known as the Law Courts, was proposed in 1866, when it was decided that a number of London courts should be brought together under one roof. A competition was launched to find the best design. It was won, ironically, by a trained solicitor, George Edmund Street.
Today the Courts building is revered as a Gothic Revival masterpiece of lofty pinnacles and turret-topped towers, and has become very much the epicentre of Legal London.
Work began on Street’s Victorian Gothic design in 1873 and it took more than eight years to build the structure, largely because of a masons’ strike that caused a temporary stoppage of work. Parliamentary officials brought in workers from other European countries to complete the job, but the hiring of these individuals caused so much ruckus that work did not continue on schedule until all labour disputes were resolved.
Supplies came in through a secret underground tunnel. The finished building contained 35 million Portland stone bricks, more than three-and-a-half miles of corridor and over 1,000 clocks (many of these have to be wound by hand; a man dubbed ‘The Dawn Winder’ by BBC Radio 4 comes in a couple of mornings every week to do this).
Queen Victoria opened the building in December 1882. Unfortunately, Street had died a year before his masterpiece was completed; it was said that it was the stress of overseeing the project that killed him.
In total, it cost about £2.2 million to purchase the land, clear the 400-odd slum houses that occupied the site and then build the structure. 4,000 people were displaced by the project.
The Royal Courts of Justice is divided into a number of divisions, each of which has its own courts. The Royal Courts of Justice building accommodates both the Court of Appeal and the High Court.
The Court of Appeal consists of two divisions:
The civil division, which hears appeals from the High Court
The criminal division, which hears appeals from the Crown Court (Courts such as the Old Bailey).
The High Court deals with higher-level civil disputes involving over £100,000. There are three divisions of the High Court:
The Queen’s Bench Division, concerned with:
Breach of contract
Libel and slander (defamation)
Non-payment of a debt, and
Possession of land or property.
The Chancery Division, concerned with:
Business- and property-related disputes
General Chancery Claims
Intellectual Property claims
Appeals to the High Court, Chancery Division from the lower court
The Family Division handles matters around:
Divorce, maintenance, adoption and child custody.
The Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) truly is at the heart of legal London – it lies slap bang in the middle of the ‘Inns of Court’, which are, in effect, the training and trade associations for barristers in England and Wales. There are four of them in total: Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn, which are to the north of the RCJ, and Middle Temple and Inner Temple, which are to the south, basically between Strand and the Thames. All the Inns date back hundreds of years.