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September 2017Volume 48Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

The people’s court in the island across the pond

“The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts.”1

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to London with my family. As most tourists are apt to do, we went to see the Crown Jewels, Shakespeare’s Globe, Buckingham Palace and many other well-known historical sites. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting stops we made while sightseeing was the United Kingdom’s (UK) Supreme Court. On the day we arrived, we were provided with a tour and even had an opportunity to sit in on an oral argument, or as they like to refer to it, an oral hearing. Our guide was quite knowledgeable and well informed on the various facets of the building and the inner-workings of the Court. While the UK’s Supreme Court may not be on everyone’s “top-ten list” of must-see tourist attractions, it is worth while exploring the building - both as a beautiful piece of architecture and as a historical site rich in legal history. “The story that a building tells through its design may be as important to the community it serves as is its function…”2 This sentiment perfectly captures the essence of the UK’s Supreme Court building. Through the utilization of traditional and contemporary architecture, art, decoration and ornamentation, the Court is communicating a message of independence, openness, transparency, unity, and justice. What follows is an interpretive description of how the courthouse and the Court have effectively expressed the view that the UK’s highest court is the people’s court.

The Supreme Court sits in the former Middlesex Guildhall, on the western side of London’s Parliament Square. Middlesex Guildhall, the building of the new Supreme Court, was built in 1913, renovated between 2007 and 2009, and restored to its previous grandeur to serve as the home of the highest court in the United Kingdom. The location of the Court is symbolic of the United Kingdom’s separation of powers, balancing the judiciary and legislature across the open space of Parliament Square, with the other two sides of the square occupied by the Treasury building and Westminster Abbey. On the way to the courthouse, one may be striding along one or two streets located nearby called the “Little Sanctuary” and the “Broad Sanctuary,” both of which date back to the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). The street names are due to the fact that the entire area encompassing Parliament Square, including where the courthouse stands today, was originally part of the sanctuary grounds of Westminster Abbey. Right across from the courthouse, in Parliament Square, a visitor from Illinois will with particular pride notice amid the statutes of Churchill, Gandhi, and Mandela, the statute of Abraham Lincoln, known as the “Standing Lincoln.” The statute was installed and unveiled in 1920, to commemorate the 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States. The statute of President Lincoln in the square is a replica and its original can be found in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

The exterior of the courthouse is gothic in style and decorated with stone carvings and corner turrets. Above the arched entrance to the Supreme Court is a frieze depicting King John handing the Magna Carta to the barons at Runnymede. Passing through the double wooden doors in the front of the building, one steps into an entrance hall and is greeted by a large emblem of the Supreme Court emblazoned on glass panels. The Court’s emblem, while utilizing traditional symbolisms representing the four jurisdictions within the United Kingdom3 and the Greek letter Omega signifying finality, is at the same time very modern in its design. Visible from the other side of the glass panels are the double doors to the library, which are etched with the words from the Magna Carta. The walls of the entrance hall and the grand spiral staircase which leads to the other floors in the building have a stonework look to them. It should be noted that while the Supreme Court is situated in London, it is a UK judicial forum, legally separate from the English and Welsh courts as it is a Supreme Court for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. The repeated use of the symbols from the four jurisdictions throughout the building serves as a reminder that the Supreme Court is a court for all of the people in the United Kingdom.4

The Supreme Court building contains three courtrooms. Court One is the largest room and is located on the second floor. This courtroom is an ornate wood-trimmed room with wood-carved benches for public seating. This courtroom and the other two courtrooms in the building are furnished with very contemporary looking crescent shaped benches and counsel’s tables which are level with one another. In fact, the entire courtroom is literally arranged on one level. Thus, during an oral hearing, the justices and appellate counsels are facing each other at eye level across an oval space. Another unique feature of Court One is its colorful carpet which is decorated with the symbols of the four nations of the United Kingdom. The carpet was designed by British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who is better known for having created the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.

The first floor of the building contains Court Two, a very modern style courtroom which is much smaller in size than Court One. On the front wall high above and behind the bench is an elegantly designed glass sculpture of the Supreme Court emblem. The walls on each side of the courtroom are decorated with colorful tapestries. The gallery in the back of the courtroom is separated by a glass wall which is etched with the phrase, “Justice cannot be for one side alone but must be for both.” The quote is actually etched into the glass twice and is visible upon entering and exiting the courtroom. The quote is attributed to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

On the ground floor mounted in the lobby outside of Court Three is a bronze bas-relief of Queen Elizabeth II. This courtroom is the home of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Privy Council is the court of final appeal for the UK’s overseas territories, crown dependencies, and commonwealth countries. Situated on the top of the bench are tiny flags representing the various jurisdictions that the Privy Council oversees.

Also on the ground floor is what I consider to be the gem of the building: a magnificent triple-height library. During the renovation, the floors between the second and first floors of the building were removed to create an expansive open look. Another distinctive feature of the library is the impressive vaulted ceiling with the Royal Coat of Arms in the center. Along the walls, immediately beneath the ceiling, are intricately detailed stained glass windows. Also hanging from the walls are portraits of some of the UK’s past distinguished jurists. Further down the walls are dark wood shelves containing an impressive array of legal books, treatises, and manuscripts from around the world.

Situated in the middle of the library is a beautiful wood and glass balustrade engraved with quotes chosen by the Supreme Court Justices themselves. All told, there are 16 quotations from various notable historical figures such as of Aristotle, Cicero, Disraeli, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Prior to exiting the library, one is likely to notice sitting on a shelf all by itself, a single volume book entitled Sir George Croke’s Reports, which is a selection of cases from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This treatise was printed in 1661 and is one of the oldest books in the library. The entire motif of the library not only creates an atmosphere which is conducive to study and reflection but very eloquently brings the common law’s past and future together.

Right outside of the library, the stone spiral staircase leads one down to the lower level of the building. An excellent exhibition center with a café open to the public is located on the lower ground floor of the Court. From the exhibits on display, one can gain some insight into the evolution of the law in the UK. The history of the common law is very succinctly and chronologically set forth from the Magna Carta to the present system of justice, which now encompasses the Court.

The Supreme Court, as an institution, is a relatively new concept to the UK’s system of justice. Part 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 provided for the creation of a Supreme Court for the United Kingdom. Prior to the establishment of the Court, the 12 most senior judges – the “Law Lords” as they were often referred to – sat in a small chamber in the House of Lords as the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. For centuries, this was the highest court in the realm. The decisions of the Law Lords were binding on all lower courts. As members of the House of Lords, the judges, however, played a dual role. Not only did the judges hear cases, but they were also able to take part in debating and subsequently enacting legislation. This system which existed and persisted for over 600 years came to a close on July 30, 2009, when the Law Lords delivered their final decision,5 thus ending the judicial function of The House of Lords as the highest appeals court in the UK and thereby paving the way for a new appellate innovation.

The rationale of creating the Supreme Court was to establish a forum that is separate from Parliament. The Court’s geographic location provides all with a visual reminder that the individuals who serve on the final court of appeal in the UK are in fact judges and not legislators. While no one alleged that the Law Lords were actually conflicted or influenced by the legislative or executive law makers, that was beside the point. A change was needed to increase transparency at the top of the judicial system. Along those lines, the Supreme Court put into place various means of enhancing the Court’s transparency. For example, all of the Court’s hearings are filmed and broadcasted on the major television and radio news networks. The public can also watch the proceedings on the Court’s website at It is reported that approximately 20,000 view this stream each month. The Court also issues press summaries about pending and decided cases. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court will take the matter under advisement. Thereafter, a written judgment will be forwarded to the parties in a draft form and then the justices will schedule a hearing date when they will formally and publicly hand down their decision for all to see and hear. Through this process, the public will witness justice in action. This also enables the court’s decisions to be subject to public scrutiny and critique. It can be said that the glass walls and partitions throughout the building are symbolic of the transparency which the Court is striving to project throughout all its proceedings.

When departing the courthouse one will walk through glass doors which have etched upon them the words “to do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.” which is the oath the justices pledge to respect, honor and uphold as they administer justice in the people’s court.


1. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No.78 in The Federal Papers.

2. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Forword to Steven Flanders, Celebrating the Courthouse: A Guide for Architects, Their Clients, and the Public (W. W. Norton & Company 2006).

3. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

4. The Tudor Rose symbolizes England, the thistle is for Scotland, and the flax flower represents Ireland. All three are connected by the leaves of a leek, which is a symbol associated with Wales.

5. Purdy, Regina (on the application of) v. Director of Public Prosecutions, [2009] UKHL 45; [2009] 3 WLR 403.

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