Long live the Rolls Building, for all its faults

There is no doubt that the Rolls Building was badly needed and it does bring the High Court into the 21st century.

Douglas Campbell
Douglas Campbell

At the same time, nobody would pretend it is perfect – at least not yet. I did a three-day trial in its opening week (BSkyB v Nationwide Digital Services) and the following is what I found.

The courtrooms themselves are all ­significantly smaller than in the old ­building. Counsel’s row is so close to the witness box that it is much easier to ­intimidate witnesses with physical ­proximity.

Oddly enough, this small size seems to be combined with poor acoustics, and the shorthand writers struggle to catch what is being said. Also, the public gallery is at the back of the court rather than the side, so the public now has a splendid view of the backs of heads.

The small size does allow the new ­building to have more rooms, which in turn allows more hearings to take place. And in any case, how often did any of us actually need the full size of the old ­courtrooms?

It was unfortunate that the first week of the new building coincided with the start of one of the biggest ever civil ­trials – Berezovsky v Abramovich. But then again, no court in the land would be big enough for that one.

A sure-fire way to spot a ’Rolls virgin’ is to look out for someone who actually tries to use the lecterns in the courtrooms. These have sloping tops, but no lips or ledges along the bottom. The result?

If you put your notes on them they instantly fall to the floor and scatter in all directions. All of these no doubt ­expensively ­purchased items are now gathering dust while somebody works out how to fix them.

It is not practicable to put windows to the outside world in courtrooms. This does mean that the courtrooms have an airless feel to them, but it is no worse than in the old building. In order to address this issue, some of the courtrooms have windows into the judges’ corridor. This is undoubtedly a bad idea, since the sight of other judges walking around inevitably tends to distract.

Some of the issues with the new ­building reflect users’ conservatism, rather than the building itself. For ­example, it has plenty of consultation rooms for both sides. This is a major improvement over the single broom ­cupboard per floor that was available in the Thomas More ­Building. But old habits die hard, with most counsel confering with clients in hushed tones in a corner of the common area rather than in a ­dedicated ­consultation room. No doubt we will all adjust in time.

The overall layout of the building is an undoubted success. After many years working in the Royal Courts of Justice one tends to forget just how difficult it is for clients to find their way to the right ­courtroom from the entrance on The Strand. That simply does not apply in the new building, which is much more compact and adequately signposted.

The spiral staircase is a nice touch, and the most one needs to climb is three floors, rather than the 11 before. The counter windows, for issuing applications and so on, are also easy to find, being situated just a few yards from the entrance.

The new building is not in my autopilot yet, so my feet still tend to guide me towards the old building when I step outside chambers. Also, the new place does not yet have a history of its own, so it does not feel like it has any character. But there is no doubt that the Rolls is a better place in which to work. Long live the new.