Recent Visit to the UK Supreme Court
I recently toured the Supreme Court building for the first time, and couldn’t have been more impressed. I have been wanting to visit this building for years, not so much for its history but I must confess that the courts hold such a fascination for me. Becoming a lawyer was my childhood dream that’s why I took up Political Science in college (I actually did convince myself as a young girl that someday I’d be a ‘trial court judge’ — too ambitious, i know haha!). So I planned to go to law school, worked towards fulfilling that goal, and even passed the UP College of Law entrance exam but ended up studying business and international relations in Japan. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we envision them. On hindsight, I know it all providentially happened according to God’s plan.
As the picture shows, the statue of Abraham Lincoln is standing in front of the building. Don’t ask me why. I don’t have an answer except that the statue has been in that location since it was unveiled in 1920, long before the UK Supreme Court was conceived. And I have no doubt that it’s been placed there for a compelling reason but I have yet to do a research on that. All I can say is, the towering figure of the 16th American President is a powerful presence at the centre of Parliament Square.
The building is open to the public from Monday to Friday with an entrance fee of £7 per person. I visited on a Saturday when the court’s out of session (thanks to a friend who made all the arrangement, and it was free of charge as well!), and I had a wonderful opportunity of getting inside the Justices’ Library which isn’t ordinarily open to the public. The first thing that caught my attention as soon as I got there was the quotations, chosen by the original panel of Justices, for the library:
- “These having not the law are law unto themselves” – Romans 2:14
- “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King
- “The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth’ – Cicero
- “Justice is truth in action.” – Disraeli
- “Law is order and good law is good order.” – Aristotle
- “He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.”– Plato
- “Justice is far from being a natural concept. The closer one gets to the state of nature, the less does one find.” – Megarry
- “Where is there any book of law so clear to each man as that written in his heart?” – Tolstoy
- “Man is a little thing while he works by and for himself but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice he is godlike.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centred.” – Aristotle
- “Laws were made to prevent the strong from always having their way.” – Ovid
The quotations above, especially the scripture passage Romans 2:14, struck me because of the extrajudicial killings, the widening schism between the politicians and the masses, and other issues that were on top of my head at the time — all the recurring hostilities in the Philippines. But I digress. 🙂
Many people, even British citizens, do think that the Supreme Court has been in existence since the United Kingdom was formed in 1707. But that’s not the case. In fact, only seven years ago, the 1st of October 2009 to be exact, the lawmakers changed the shape of the judiciary by creating a Supreme Court. Just like that! Without the general public seeming to take much notice.
The Supreme Court is in a very historic location in London, the former Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster, and forms part of the existing quadrangle called Parliament Square made up of Westminster Abbey, HM Treasury and the Houses of Parliament. The UK judicial system is a little bit complicated because it’s made up of several separate jurisdictions, and not a single unified system, and there is one system for England and Wales, another for Scotland, and a third for Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court sits above all of these as the final court of appeal.
It is a beautiful building with ornaments and other architectural details such as stained glass windows, copper handrails, coat of arms, etc., that are leftover from when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall.
We first watched a video in which Lord Neuberger,
the President of the Court (rather than Chief Justice, as what we call him in countries like the Philippines or the US) expressed his welcome greetings, how he wanted us all to come back when we could hear the Justices discussing cases and all of that legal niceties. 😉
Courtroom 1 used to be the debating hall of the Middlesex County Council. Middlesex being one of the counties that was re-organised out of nowhere. I mean, can you imagine the outcry if the US Federal government decided, for instance, to merge two smaller states — Florida and Georgia, or to divide Texas — the second largest state in terms of land area? And since I mentioned the Philippines earlier, I might as well give another example here: imagine if Malacañang Palace decided to merge Luzon and Visayas islands, or divide Mindanao into two provinces: Muslim and Christian? Outrageous, right? However, with the current state of affairs in the Philippines, I think there wouldn’t be much opposition to anything like that. Majority of the Filipinos will probably rally behind the new president to overrule the decision of the Congress, that is, if Congress end up repelling Malacañang’s decision. 😉 Ah, but you might say, it’s never going to happen in the Philippines. Well, let’s see what happens in the next year or two. Sorry, I digress again. 🙂
Courtroom 1 has no witness box or witness stand as I had expected. The room is set up for discussion, with a curved table for Justices and a curved table for barristers (or lawyers), facing each other across an oval space. Behind the barristers sit the solicitors (a different kind of lawyer — a topic for another day). Behind the Justices sit their legal assistants or young lawyers in training. The public sits in an elevated gallery or balcony behind the solicitors (in the UK a solicitor is a legal practitioner who traditionally deals with most of the legal matters in some jurisdictions, and undertakes the general aspects of giving legal advice and conducting legal proceedings).
From the Courtroom 1 the colourful carpet is quite noticeable. It’s in a pattern used throughout the building, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, the same guy who did the cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. It shows the four emblems of the countries in the United Kingdom: Tudor rose for England (takes its name from the Tudor dynasty and was adopted as England’s national emblem); the leek for Wales (but only represented by leaves but make up most of the crest of the Court); the thistle for Scotland, and the flax flower for Northern Ireland. By the way, a ‘shamrock’ was not used because it represents the whole of Ireland, and the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the Republic of Ireland.
Court 2 is very modern, airy and with plenty of light because of the huge windows which looks out onto Westminster Abbey. We were told that it’s the Justices’ favorite court room.
Our tour guide raised a question as we entered Courtroom 3, ‘When is the Supreme Court not the Supreme Court?’ Of course, it’s a baffling question so I said, ‘When this country become a ‘divided kingdom’ and/or if Parliament decides to dissolve the UK Supreme Court!” 🙂 She smiled and said, ‘Great answer. However, I don’t see Scotland, Ireland and Wales separating from England. The answer to my question therefore is, when the Court is sitting as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or JCPC.’ I thought she was talking some legal jargon none of us ordinary folks have any comprehension of, but she further explained what she meant. It’s too complicated, and I won’t bore you with details. 🙂
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council or JCPC cases are heard at Courtroom 3. When the court is being used by the JCPC the little flags are removed (they’re put on there just to give visitors an idea of the countries which bring cases here), and a full-sized flag from the country whose case is to be discussed hangs from a full-sized flagpole. The British judicial system has evolved over at least nine-ten centuries, accumulating bits and pieces here and there as the British empire grew, and eventually collapsed. And of course, after the First and Second World War as the world drastically changed, and colonies were granted independence, the Court obliged to take into consideration all kinds of rights and privileges. The result is that the Crown-in-Council, that is, the Monarch, aided by advisers called the Privy Council, the ultimate appellate court for the Empire has been left with the final word or decision on cases from a peculiar mishmash of jurisdictions, including some in foreign countries.
Courtroom 3 being the Main Court is the largest and the most beautiful, in my opinion. The wood and stone carvings on the walls, seats, ceiling, everywhere – are all spectacular. The seats are like church pews, and padded as well to make it more comfortable.
Check out those woodcarvings!
England’s emblem, the English Rose, is quite a striking design added into this huge stained-glass window.
Check out this large window with the woodcarvings in the shape of the English Rose — just some of the architectural details of the building that I love.
The Supreme Court, or rather the Middlesex Guildhall, is indeed one of the most historic and beautiful buildings in the Parliament Square. I really did enjoy the tour, and walked away from the building with a little bit more knowledge about the UK’s judicial system. And more importantly, I came to appreciate more not just the history of my adopted country but also its heritage.