Legal London: The Inns of Court

Report by Ludolph van Hasselt on the guided walk on Thursday 25 August

We woke in the middle of the night as the heavens opened. Judgement Day had arrived with our afternoon appointment at the Inns of Court. But we were innocent. At the allotted time the clouds parted and a benevolent sun shone down on our party. We were ready to be enlightened.

In fact, we were not the accused, nor even neutral bystanders, but the jury, about to be addressed by the Barrister for the defence, Mr. Tom Hooper MBE. Concentration was required and a sharp mind. No easing up until the case was argued. We were the privileged audience of a highly capable communicator and motivator. At times Tom addressed us as a group, or he would move forward and fix one of us with his gaze, pulling us deeper into history, into the story, of which we were now fully a part.

Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple harbour some of the most picturesque, least changed and historically fascinating places. Their time-locked lanes and tucked away squares, gardens or fields have witnessed and indeed influenced some of the most important events in English history. They remain a relatively little explored part of London, behind their sturdy wooden gates that keep the outside world and the modern age at bay. Steeped in history and the sheer magnificence of the surroundings combine to make the Inns of Court such an absolute joy to discover. Many, famous or infamous, trod their flagstones.

This is history in action. The Inns of Court were created as places where barristers would live and work. They are situated outside both the City of London and the City of Westminster in what were open fields, away from medieval hustle and bustle and pests. Nearby are the Royal Courts of Justice, which were moved for convenience from Westminster Hall to the legal quarter of London in 1882. Thankfully none of us ended up “On Carey Street”; at least not yet. Dickens might have done, had he not kept moving on (living near Gray’s Inn at one stage).

History created a system of barristers as a monopoly on the representation of defendants in court and a monopoly in selecting and training future barristers. This monopoly has slowly eroded through reforms: the Inns of Court no longer provide all the education needed by prospective barristers; solicitors can selectively gain the right to plead in court. Yet the Inns of Court remain a unique cluster of legal expertise.

The structure of Chambers can be gleaned from the rows of names by their front doors, including the Clerk, who has traditionally done very well from his role of distributing cases within Chambers. On the other hand, taking recent media reports as a starting point, the Criminal Law system (as against Civil Law) faces serious financial challenges and with that challenges to its proper functioning.

Presenting a legal case in court not only requires an intimate knowledge of the law, but an ability to focus on the winning arguments in a case and an ability to communicate convincingly. Dining in Halls has been an important tradition: it gives young aspiring barristers the opportunity to learn debating with more senior and experienced members; as well as to get to know one another, important for independently operating, sole traders.

The architecture of the Inns of Court is akin to a cathedral with cloisters, the only reference point in medieval times. Now they present a wonderful timeline of evolving architectural tastes through the ages. Each new style is built next to the previous one; juxtapositions, which now blend in perfectly. Lincoln’s Inn especially presents an opportunity to witness this collection of styles to be seen from a single view point.

The original church of the Knights Templar still stands in the Inner Temple, having survived a WWII bomb dropped through the roof into its centre (leaving havoc inside, but preserving a near perfect structure). A commemorative Millennium column in the Inner Temple caused uproar: the rear of the horse carrying two knights points towards the Middle Temple (which itself only managed a meagre fountain as memorial).

The Hall of the Middle Temple was restored with American money: a relationship going back to the founding of the USA as Middle Temple barristers helped draft its constitution. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was commissioned and premiered here with the “Virgin (..umph) Queen” as guest.

Lincoln’s Inn fields contains an old execution ground, where the convicted would be hung, drawn and quartered. A great spectacle of the day. Did we get value for money of a long drawn out process witnessed from our prime seats; or did the executioner “pull the leg” of the condemned to speed up the end? Those were the days!

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