The English legal system is one of Europe’s major legal systems, and it has influenced legal process in many former colonies, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and India. A robust system with laws derived from statute (those implemented by Parliament), common law (precedents set by courtroom judges), and influences from EU Law, London is at the legal heart of England.
Whether you are fascinated by law and order, or are simply looking for alternative things to do on a visit to the UK’s lively capital, London is home to several noteworthy places of legal interest.
Royal Courts of JusticeA splendid Victorian Gothic building, the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) is an impressive piece of architecture. Built in the 1880s, stand outside and admire the fine craftsmanship of the pale building. Stained glass, turrets, spires, tiny windows, balustrades, and archways are just a few of the striking details that make this building so attractive.
Members of the public can enter the building and look around, and free self-guided leaflets are available to offer more insights. You must first pass through a security check, so make sure that you aren’t carrying any prohibited items (weapons, sharp objects, etc). Photography is, unfortunately, prohibited inside.
You can also enter many of the courtrooms and observe legal cases from the public galleries. As most of the matters are largely related to civil disputes, however, you probably won’t want to spend too long actually inside the courtrooms. Do make sure that all phones are switched off and that you are quiet – you really don’t want to ruin your day by receiving a dressing down from the judge or, even worse, being held in contempt of court! Children under 14 years of age are not allowed in the courtrooms.
You can see an interesting display of legal costumes on the building’s first floor. Exhibits include colourful robes and grand-looking wigs as worn by judges of different levels of seniority, and the traditional garments worn by barristers.
If you are really into legal history, or want to discover more about the building and its artwork, you can pre-book a guided tour of the RCJ. Tours cost 12 GBP (approximately 17 USD) per person, and details are available on the RCJ’s website.
Central Criminal CourtOne of the most famous courts in the world, London’s Central Criminal Court (CCC) is often referred to as the Old Bailey. The name comes from the road on which it is located. A beautiful building that dates back to the early 1900s, it stands on the site of earlier court buildings. Indeed, there have been criminal courts on this spot since at least the 1580s.
A grand and imposing building, take some time to admire the exterior details. Sweeping columns, stone carvings, and statues surround the building, and an inscription above the main entrance reads “Defend the Children of the Poor & Punish the Wrongdoer”.
Topped by a magnificent green dome, you’ll see a graceful statue of Lady Justice standing proudly on top. The Roman goddess of justice, she represents fairness and morality in administering justice. Holding the scales of justice in one hand and a sword in the other, she is unlike many other representations in that she isn’t blindfolded.
If you want to go inside the building, be aware that you cannot take any belongings with you. That includes cameras, phones, bags, food, and drink. There are also no storage facilities available at the CCC. A nearby travel agency can store your things for a small fee of 1 GBP (approximately 1.40 USD). It is free to go inside, but you must pass the stringent security checks. This is a working court building and deals with many high profile criminals, remember!
Most courtrooms are open to the public, and you can sit in on various cases and watch from the public galleries. You’ll notice that each judge is addressed as My Lord or My Lady, regardless of their level of seniority. You might see barristers putting forth their arguments, evidence being given by various witnesses including the defendant, judges giving directions, summing up, or sentencing, or juries returning their verdicts. Don’t expect anything like you commonly see on the TV though – real-life court cases are nowhere near as dramatic!
Site of Newgate Prison and St Sepulchres ChurchOne of the most infamous prisons from England’s past, Newgate Prison was demolished and rebuilt several times, finally closing for good in 1904. Part of the Central Criminal Court now stands on the site of the former prison, and a simple wall plaque marks the spot.
Although there is nothing major to see today, it is still worth seeking out the plaque and looking around the surrounding area. A prison stood here for more than 700 years. Newgate Prison, often shortened to just Newgate, was home to all types of prisoner. Ranging from those who had committed petty misdeeds and people who had been incarcerated because of debt to those who had perpetrated serious crimes, like murder and rape, Newgate saw many characters pass through its cells.
Known for its shocking and unsanitary conditions and the cruelness of the wardens, there were many problems within the prison. Lice, illness, starvation, drunkenness, and violence were all rife. People who had been sentenced to death were kept in what was basically an open sewer, with grim shackles and chains lining the walls.
From the 1780s the gallows, for hanging prisoners, stood in the street outside the prison. Public hangings took place here until the late 1860s.
St Sepulchres Church is an attractive and interesting building in its own right. The present building dates back to the 18th century, with older churches having stood here since at least the 1100s. There is no charge, but donations are appreciated.
Inside the church you can see an old hand-held bell that has received the dubious nickname of the Execution Bell. A church clerk would ring the bell outside the cell of a prisoner before they were taken to be executed. It was also customary for the large church bells to be sounded when a person was being hanged at the Newgate gallows.
According to local legend, there is a secret tunnel beneath the London street. Rumoured to have connected St Sepulchres Church and Newgate Prison, it is said it was so a condemned prisoner could visit the church before their execution without facing an angry street mob. Who knows – there could be a secret passageway right under your feet!
Inns of CourtThe majestic Inns of Court date back to the 14th century. In the past, there were many such inns throughout London, designed to be the homes and training centres for barristers. Today, only four Inns of Court remain: Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. All trainee and practising barristers must be a member of one of the Inns of Court. The beautiful complexes each have huge impressive halls, massive legal libraries, barristers’ chambers, pretty gardens, and a chapel.
Lincoln’s Inn is the largest Inn of Court. It also has the longest recorded history of the Inns. The famous author, Charles Dickens, used to work from offices at Gray’s Inn. The neighbouring Inner Temple and Middle Temple both take their names from the fact that they once formed the headquarters for the English branch of the Knights Templar. A Christian military organisation that was instrumental in the Christian Crusades, the Knights Templar were wealthy, powerful, and highly skilled fighters. The organisation also introduced many early banking practices and built strong defences across Europe and the Holy Land. The Knights Templar are the subject of many myths, mysteries, and legends. The hall at Middle Temple was also used to film scenes in the hugely popular Harry Potter movies.
Members of the public can wander the expansive grounds and admire the eye-catching buildings. There is no charge. It may be possible to arrange tours of the temples if you’re keen to see more; information can be obtained from their websites.
Tower of LondonOne of London’s most popular attractions, the imposing Tower of London has strong legal connections. It was once used as a specialist prison for people who had been incarcerated for treason – extreme crimes against the country or ruling powers. Previous inmates included regular people, nobility, and even members of the royal family.
You can gaze in horror at medieval instruments of torture, imaging the ghastly scenes that unfolded within the tower’s walls. More than 20 executions were carried out at the Tower of London, with most victims having been beheaded. One of the most famous people to have been beheaded here was the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, a former Queen of England, the second wife of King Henry XIII, and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I.
Admission to the fascinating Tower of London costs 24.50 GBP (approximately 34.70 USD) for adults and 11 GBP (approximately 15.60 USD) for children. Slight discounts can be obtained if you book your ticket in advance through the website.
Other places of legal interest around London
Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park was historically a place where people could freely demonstrate and talk about any topic they chose. These rights were granted by law. People still attend Speakers’ Corner today to talk about a range of topics. Topics must be lawful; people cannot, for example, incite violence, incite racial hatred, or harass others. It can be quite interesting to hear the diverse rants that people have! You can also see the place where the Tyburn Gallows used to stand in the days before public executions were moved to outside Newgate Prison.
Pay a visit to the British Library and see an original copy of the important Magna Carta, the early basis for the English legal system. Visit the Houses of Parliament and see where statutes are debated and either passed or denied, call into one of the many legal book shops around the Temple area, and perhaps have a bite to eat in a former Magistrate’s Court at the Courthouse Hotel.
Experience legal London of the past and present and have fun enjoying some different sights of the city.
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