Last week I had a couple of hours to kill. So I went and took a gander at the Supreme Court – and I thought it was fantastic.
Entering the court was like entering the lobby of a posh hotel – I was greeted by welcoming security staff with a “Good Morning Madam”, and was through security quicker than I get through the arch at my local county court where bags are gone through with a fine toothed comb (in fairness they aren’t equipped with an x-ray machine and there is a lot more of a 9am crush in County!). There was a wealth of public information leaflets, good signposting and helpful Information Point staff. I enquired what courts were sitting and was given a summary sheet telling me about the case in court 2 (Times Newspapers Ltd (Appellant) v Gary Flood (Respondent) – a case about defamation and the qualified privilege defence). I was able to hear an hour or so of the submissions of Richard Rampton QC for the Appellant.
There were a number of members of the public present – some (judging from their dress) were lawyers, but many were tourists. There was no sense of the public being grudgingly allowed to attend or of them being an inconvenience. I was able to slip in part way through the afternoon session, and whilst I was there a number of people slipped silently in, and out, assisted by a friendly security guard on the door. They seemed instinctively to know how to behave, which was just as well because the courtrooms are pretty intimate and so noisy ins and outs, fidgeting or chit chat would be disruptive and distracting.
This was a complex case with submissions that were not easy to pick up and follow mid flow (no doubt in common with most cases in this court), but clearly a lot of thought has gone into making Supreme Court proceedings as accessible as possible from the welcoming first impression and printed materials to the lighting and decor. The public sat and listened, rapt.
The Supreme Court website says of Lady Hale that “A home maker as well as a judge, she thoroughly enjoyed
helping the artists and architects create a new home for The Supreme Court”. I did a mental eye roll when I read that the first time but I now can’t emphasise enough how important a task it was and what a success it has been (I have done a mental slap on my wrist also). Because there is something compelling about these courtrooms, a sort of hypnotic effect that promotes focus and calm. And it’s not by chance. Good design runs throughout the building.
The new court is light, airy, easy to navigate and formal without being stuffy or fussy. It is a wonderful blend of original architectural features and clean lines, glass and white walls. It is respectful of the history of the building, but utterly fit for purpose as a modern court facility. Everything about it contrasts with the old accommodation of its predecessor in the Committee Rooms at the House of Lords with its tortuous security obstacle course, its labyrinthine corridors, its suffocating flock wallpaper and uncomfortable chairs that made fidgeting unavoidable (I speak from experience when I say that with a 19thC chair spring up your bum it is impossible to focus properly even on the dulcet tones of Lord Hoffmann).
The court I was in was small and intimate enough to have a good view of the judges and counsel, but the high ceiling and dressing of the room command respect and I think somehow contributed to the remarkably noiseless behaviour of the watching public. The one ornate feature was the fantastic curtains on each side of the bar. They hang from ceiling to floor in a deep aqua green and are decorated with a gorgeous flower motif which somehow symbolises the synthesis of the traditional and that modern that the court’s architecture symbolises and which runs is at the centre of what it does (A simplified flower emblem hangs above the judges heads). Quite apart from being (I imagine) of some assistance to the rather good acoustics, they are a wonderful feature to gaze at whilst allowing the able submissions of counsel to trickle through the brain cells. I found they rather helped my concentration.
It may seem ridiculous to harp on about the curtains, but wherever you are in the courtroom they are visible in your peripheral vision and they contribute massively to the atmosphere in the courtroom – they are part of a carefully constructed environment which sets the tone, and which signals the kind of court this is. And whilst the rooms will be full for years to come of wise words and beautifully constructed arguments, the curtains speak without words – they have presence.
It is clear that there is a real commitment to make this new court accessible to its core, to encourage the public to engage with it. It is not just through the regular publication of case summaries, court lists and press releases on the website, nor only through the live streaming of proceedings on the internet. It is not even just about the visitor information displays about the history of the court that visitors are encouraged to view on their way to the modern public cafe or the willingness of the judges to give interviews and be involved in TV programmes (the latest today coincidentally) and be demonstrably human (that there should even be judicial biographies on the website is pretty remarkable). It is in the design and decor, in the day to day running of the court, the attitude of its staff.
The significance of metaphor and the visual should not be underestimated: this is a building where the whole rear wall of each court room is transparent glass. The physical building is as articulate as any press release: “See Justice being done”. Compare it to the RCJ, where not even the staff can tell you how to get from the Bear Garden to the Queen’s Building, where the hapless litigant is confronted with a load of stuffed judge costumes in glass boxes as he rounds the corner, where the courts cold and intimidating and the whole experience like Alice Through the Looking Glass or a nightmare scene from Bleak House. The RCJ is a fantastic building, but it symbolises everything that is inaccessible about law. The Supreme Court is it’s antidote and it is just super.