The Old Bailey

This week I was privileged to be invited by Alderman and Sheriff Charles Bowman to have lunch with him, the Judges of the Old Bailey and three other guests including Ken Olisa, Lord Lieutenant for Greater London. The position of Sheriff is the oldest secular position in the country after only the Monarch. Since Saxon times the two Sheriffs of the City of London have, uniquely, been elected by the citizens of London and have been concerned with the administration of Justice. Their primacy was displaced, however by the election in 1189 of the Lord Mayor, for he became by Royal Charter the principal justiciar of the City. He and the Aldermen remain ex-officio judges of the City. The Recorder of London and the Common Serjeant of London were first appointed in the thirteenth century as legal advisers respectively to the Court of Aldermen and to the Court of Common Council and as Judges of ‘The Old Baillie Sessions House’.

Today the Recorder of London, assisted by the Common Serjeant, is the senior permanent judge of the Central Criminal Court and sits daily with thirteen other Circuit Judges and some other judges attached for short periods from ether the High Court or the provincial circuits. During their year of office the two Sheriffs live in the Old Bailey and are charged with looking after the judges including giving them lunch every day. The Alderman on duty ,in this case Alderman Vincent Keaveny, representing the Lord Mayor, assisted by one of the two Sheriffs open Court each afternoon and otherwise care for the comfort, safety and well-being of HM Judges. Up to four times each year the Lord Mayor visits the Central Criminal Court in state formally to open the Session, exercising his right as Chief Magistrate of the City of London.

The famous building is owned and maintained by the City of London Corporation. It stands on the site of the West Gate of the Roman City of Londinium and the medieval gate on which Newgate was subsequently built. The prison was well recorded in the 12th century and served as the gaol for both the City of London and the County of Middlesex. It was destroyed by Wat Tyler during the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and subsequently ransacked during the Gordon Riots in 1780, being finally demolished in 1902 to make way for the present Court buildings, opened by HM King Edward VII in 1907. The northern end of the building was severely damaged by enemy action in 1941 but was restored from 1946 to 1954. The colloquial title “The Old Bailey” originates from the name of the street beside which it stands, itself taking its name from the Norman ‘Baillie’ or fortified place.

The first court house was built to the south of Newgate prison in 1539. It was to this Sessions House that Samuel Pepys came in the 1660s recording his visits in his diaries. (What a blogger he would have been!) Earlier the regicides were tried in the ‘Old Baillie Sessions House’ and in 1670 the case of the Quakers Penn and Mead established the right of jurors to reach a verdict solely according to their conscience.

The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but was rebuilt and then remodelled in 1774 to add an additional two courtrooms. The Court was open to the weather to avoid the spread of disease. In 1734 it was refronted, enclosing the court and reducing the influence of spectators; this led to outbreaks of typhus, notably in 1750 when 60 people died including the Lord Mayor and two judges. It was rebuilt again in 1774. Over 100,000 criminal trials were carried out at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1834.The Central Criminal Court Act of 1834 recognised the special standing and high reputation the Court had acquired by extending its jurisdiction to include not only the City and Greater London but also England and Wales and British ships abroad.

Because of its enlarged jurisdiction and facilities, the Court attracted to it the most notorious of criminals, the most odious of crimes, the most eloquent of advocates and some of the finest judges, influences which became important in the major revision of criminal law and procedure over the past 150 years.

It became a Crown Court by the Courts Act of 1971, which integrated it fully into the national system of Crown Courts, while retaining its Central Criminal Court title and powers. It has 18 courts and handles some 1,700 cases per year. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people pass through its doors every day, about 700,000 per year, and it is unique in many ways, principally by being the only Crown Court to be owned by a local authority, the City of London Corporation, the others all being owned by the Ministry of Justice.

Lunch was most pleasant but run with military precision as all the judges had to be back in their Court Rooms promptly at 2pm. Only water was served, unusual for lunches in the City, but quite appropriate. I did wonder if it had always been this way. Nevertheless the conversation flowed though I must confess that with the honoured judge opposite we talked quite a lot about football. I had mentioned that my father had taken a dim view of my decision not to pursue a career in the law and instead become a soap salesman. He said that his father had prevented him from trying his luck as a professional footballer. His father had said he should only do it if he was going to be as good as George Best. Since no one has been as good as George Best that was pretty tough. We then regaled each other with our best George Best stories.

After lunch the guests were offered the chance to attend a hearing in one of the courts. Regrettably I had to leave for another appointment and so will never know if I might have heard a trial as significant as those of Dr Crippen, the Kray twins,  Ruth Ellis , the Yorkshire Ripper, Lord Haw Haw or Jeremy Thorpe. Nor did I find out if the world’s most famous court lives up to its instructions outside its entrance to “Defend the Children of the Poor and Punish the Wrongdoer”.

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