100 Years Of Middlesex Guildhall @ The Supreme Court

While the Law Lords are away on their summer holidays (which they share with the Palace of Westminster on the other side of Parliament Square) the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is currently hosting a special exhibition about the history of its Westminster headquarters, the Middlesex Guildhall.

This impressive example of ‘art nouveau gothic’ architecture was initially built in 1912 to house Middlesex County Council’s main council chamber. Designed by J.S Gibson, who specialised in gothic civic buildings, it is as beautiful inside as it is out and shares several of its features with the buildings around it – the ground floor arched windows in particular are almost identical to those of St Margaret’s Church across the square…

Covered in elaborate stone carvings outside, on the inside the Middlesex Guildhall is even more sumptuous. There are copious amounts of stained glass and wood-panelling, with its principal floors connected by a grand, sweeping staircase. Although the building has been adulterated over the years (from the 1960s through to the mid 2000s it was used as a County Court, with seven courtrooms, jury rooms and cells squeezed into the space) when the building was refurbished in preparation for its role as the home of the Supreme Court, many of the original features of the space were restored to their former glory.

Climb to the top floor and you’ll discover the special exhibition about Middlesex Guildhall’s history, which occupies the large lobby outside Court One. The Court room is where the most complex cases are heard by the twelve current Justices – it has minstrel’s galleries at both ends and contains nine seats for the Justices with additional seating for barristers, clerks and ushers as well as space for the public. Looked down on by large portraits of previous notable judges, in most cases only three or five members of the Supreme Court occupy these chairs, however in their most recent case (which involved Julian Assange) nine of the twelve were involved in the proceedings.

Elsewhere in the building you’ll find Court Two, which occupies a large space on the first floor  and where the less complex cases are heard. Down on the ground floor Court Three is usually used by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – the court of final appeal for ‘the UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and for those Commonwealth countries that have retained the appeal to Her Majesty in Council or, in the case of Republics, to the Judicial Committee’.

Descend to the basement and you’ll find the Supreme Court’s permanent exhibition, which details how this new institution came about, provides information on the twelve Justices  and also outlines the UK’s legal system. This part of the building also houses the cafe, but thankfully there’s no gift shop!

I would definitely recommend paying a visit to the Supreme Court while the special exhibition is on – fans of architecture as well as people with an interest in the law will get something out of the experience. It’s open until 27 September 2013.

Interesting Facts:
Despite being the highest court in the land and presided over by the most senior members of the Judiciary, the Justices of the Supreme Court do not routinely wear robes or wigs when they are sitting – their special black brocade robes (made in Yorkshire) only come out on special occasions, such as the Opening of the Legal Year or the Opening of Parliament.
The deliberations of the Supreme Court are usually available to watch live online, which sets them apart from the normal Civil and Criminal Courts where even photographs aren’t permitted.
During World War II, the Middlesex Guildhall was put to use as a Maritime law court by several countries whose Governments’ were in exile – a display in the basement exhibition space carries several parchments which will tell you that these countries were Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece and Poland.