The Old Bailey: A Sabbatical in England

As we finished our coffee, Sarah Whitehouse, my sabbatical facilitator, said it was time to go to court. We fetched our umbrellas and headed off to the Central Criminal Court located in the famous courthouse, The Old Bailey.

The Old Bailey is a venerable building. The site on which it stands was the principal west gate of the Roman City of Londinium. At the time of the Norman Conquest, circa 1066, the gate was being used as a prison, and during the 12th century the gate was rebuilt, and renamed the “New Gate.” As part of the legal reforms of Henry II, through which the Crown gained more control over judicial administration, Newgate Prison was established on that site. The first court was erected in 1539; prior to that time, courts were generally held outside.

Newgate Prison, for centuries a symbol of the harsh criminal law of the time, was demolished in 1902 to make way for the present building. The name, “Old Bailey,” is taken from the name of the street on which it stands, and which follows the the line of the City of London’s fortified wall (or bailey).

Sarah led me through the back streets and lanes from her chambers to a back door in the Old Bailey known as The Lord Mayor’s entrance, through security and up to her rooms (barristers have rooms, not offices), where I was introduced to several of her colleagues who were putting on their robes and wigs for court.

Sarah had identified a murder case in Courtroom 9 which she thought would provide a good opportunity for me to observe the customs and procedure of the English courts. I was ready and eager.

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