Reflections on visits to the Houses of Parliament and UK Supreme Court

Claire Chok Mann and Cheska Tatiana
LLB Students at the University of Hertfordshire

 

Reflections on the Houses of Parliament

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Sir Charles Barry’s magnum opus truly captures the monumental culture and history of the United Kingdom. His romantic vision of a gothic palace manifested before our eyes. The Palace of Westminster; his crowning achievement. An air of excitement with a mixture of gasps and clicks of the camera hung in the air. The art connoisseurs and aesthetician amongst us law students, started to comment on the fine art and sculptures, which were interlaced with building’s grand architecture.

A word of advice, have a hearty meal and ensure that your photo-taking device is fully charged before you start on your adventure.

The bronze equestrian statue of Richard I, a broken sword raised – a symbol of Britain’s wartime resilience, greeted us as we alighted from our carriage. Then, with Oliver Cromwell from our good old Common Law days on our left and the Westminster Abbey right behind us, we made our way in through the Cromwell Green Entrance. One simply cannot miss the oldest part of the Palace –Westminster Hall, with its impressive timber hammer-beam roof, and nostalgia-inducing tributary stained glass that portrayed arms and monograms of MPs, peers and staff of the Lords and the Commons who died in WWII, alongside the insignia of their battalion. Some students posed for photos at the stairway, aware that it was a place of royal and state ceremonies, from the historical coronation of Prince Henry (1155-83), the solemn lying in state of Former Prime Minister – William Ewart Gladstone, and where Visiting Heads of States, such as the likes of President Barack Obama and President Nelson Mandela have addressed both Houses of Parliament here, these moments immortalized by the bronze plates around its vicinity, to it being a trial court (A Man for All Seasons (1966), anyone? Such a good movie).

Turn left, and we enter St. Stephen’s Hall (the mosaic above the door depicts him), the stained-glass windows and murals retains the renowned kaleidoscopic beauty of what was once the royal chapel of St. Stephen, and the statues of Norman and Plantagenet kings and queens and British statesmen of the 17th-19th centuries are lined up at the sides of the hall.

As a group of students from the School of Law, Criminology & Political Science at the University of Hertfordshire, we were looking forward to the parliamentary debates, so we made our way into the Central Lobby, the mid-point between the Commons and the Lords debating chambers, which constitutional theorist Erskine May described as “the political centre of the British Empire”. The wind was knocked out of me, and I felt rather teary – it was exquisite beyond measure, but it could have also been the fact that it was a “No photography allowed” zone.

It was overwhelming trying to absorb all the details with my brain camera – the octagonal space with decorated stone vaults, the crowned portcullis among other beauteous and labyrinthine Victorian motifs that lies in the crossing of the carved bosses and ceiling ribs, how stone statues of the monarchs line the arches, the statues of 19th century politicians to the sides and the symbolic national flower floor tiles and how the lighting complements the designs. My group of friends were already lined up in the Peers Corridor for the Lord’s debate when I, akin to Lucy in Narnia, wandered alone, and witnessed the Speaker’s procession.

“Speaker!” I heard someone proclaimed. Before every sitting of the House, the Speaker’s procession leaves the Speaker’s House inside the Palace of Westminster and heads for the Commons chamber. I tiptoed over the crowd, and my lips trembled in anticipation when the procession’s footsteps grew closer to the central lobby. The police inspector on duty shouts: “Hats Off Strangers!”, and the crowd quietened down. Uniformly, the policemen in helmets and any members of the public wearing hats removed their headgears as the dignified procession passes. The present Lord Speaker, Rt. Hon John Bercow MP was preceded and escorted by the Sergeant at Arms, who carried the Mace gallantly, and the doorkeeper. The rest of the Speaker’s staff – his chaplain, secretary and a trainbearer – followed behind. The Lord Speaker smiled amicably at the school children lined up at the front, greeted us and in he went to the Common’s Corridor.

It was then our turn to enter the Lord’s Chamber, it truly does live up to its reputation as the grandest room in the palace, as it is the place where three pillars of British society come together: Monarchy, Parliament and Church. The red seats were filled with members of the HOL, where Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon firstly answered an Urgent Question on Southern Rail Services, and later, the members debated on the reduction of size of the House of Lords put forward by Lord Cormack. It was indescribable, seeing the law that we study being brought to life – this is how law is made. It should be noted that you can get a copy of their agenda before you step into the Public Gallery. Later, we moved to the Commons chamber, where the Second reading of the Children and Social Work Bill took place, it was a big contrast as to the numbers of MPs present in the Commons and the Lords. The debates were thorough and organised, and it was interesting to note the variety of advocacy styles present. Some of us were struggling to keep up as we came in the middle of the debate, meanwhile the others dozed off like how a typical student would, perhaps it is the aftereffect of Cheeky Wednesday.

It was a pity due to the lack of time that we could not take a full tour of the Palace, given the chance, we absolutely should visit the Queen’s Robing Room, the Royal Gallery and the Prince’s Chamber. This visit truly reaffirmed my belief that law is an all-enveloping form of art. Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. The immense historical and cultural significance of this magnificent construction houses what can now be simply broken-down as series of conversations, being acted upon. Is that not amazing?

Christmas definitely came early for the 20 odd students of University of Hertfordshire School of Law, Criminology & Political Science. The day ended with some of us filling our stomachs in Chinatown, while my group of friends – with some good old fried chicken and a little drink at The Marquis of Granby at Romney Street, a historic pub with parliamentary connections. The pub houses a division bell that still rings today to call MPs back to parliament. Now that is a great end to a day well spent.

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Claire Chok Mann at the Houses of Parliament

 

Reflections on the UK Supreme Court

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Ushering in the end of 2016 for many Hertfordshire students, September symbolized a future with a student visa for the first time. Landing in Heathrow meant an immersion into the land of diverse histories, peoples and jobs. One of the things which particularly made us feel a part of this great institution was the recent trip to the United Kingdom Supreme Court; to witness law being made right before us was an experience that could not be trumped (no pun intended) by any other.

The journey began with a group of around 20-odd students of various nationalities and levels of seniority boarding the bus – which was generously provided by the School of Law, Criminology & Political Science – from the De Havilland Campus. The trip was an hour-long drive where the students en route to the trip itself attempted to forge closer bonds with each other. Although the trip to the Supreme Court would have been a journey rightfully taken at the beginning of a law students’ path in education, most of us were either direct intake students, Masters’ scholars who travelled from another country, or those who missed their opportunities in their first year.

Even before we reached the courts, the trip had been an eventful one. Some of the students had been affected by the ‘Cheeky Wednesday’ event the night before, others rigorously scrolling through the Supreme Courts’ official website to argue over which judge would preside over the cases that day. There were also the stressed tones of students talking over each other, worrying about the Intellectual Property quiz that was taking place later that night.

An hour after crawling through the rush hour traffic, we had reached the vicinity of the courthouse. Walking a distance between the bus stop and the actual building itself, we took photos of the monument of Oliver Cromwell, loudly reciting well memorized facts from our Common Law course during our first year of studies. According to the schedule, we were just in time for two hearings which both concerned immigration.

The courts had a strict security check, where each person who visited the courts needed to put their bag through a scanner, remove all jewellery and step through the scanner themselves. This was a funny moment for some of us as we had metal buckles on our boots or multiple piercings which drove the metal detector into a ‘pinging’ frenzy.

Stepping into the actual courthouse, we decided to not split the group into two and proceeded to witness a case which was being heard by Lady Hale, Lords Reed, Hughes, Wilson and Carnwath. The guards gave strict instructions, making us switch our cell phones off in court and reminded us to not make any noise in the courtroom.

The layout of the court room was an architectural marvel, with glass doors and walls; a large window on the East side of the room and the judges’ bench, which was placed under the Supreme Court crest: the four flowers symbolising England (a Tudor rose), Wales (leaves of a leek), Northern Ireland (a flax blossom) and Scotland (a thistle) encased within the Greek letter ‘Omega’.

What surprised us was that the hearing took the form of a calm exchange of ideas between bright minds. The judges asked questions during certain points of interests but the barristers were left to make their case otherwise; speaking in a slow and steady manner with a bulk of references in front of them. The informal attitude of the barristers posed a striking difference from what the media paints as a courtroom war.

Leaving halfway through the first hearing, we made our way to Courtroom 2; a case which was being presided by Lords Neuberger, Mance, Sumption, Clarke and Hodge.

It concerned almost the same points of law which were involved in the first hearing; but there was an air of intimidation around us. We couldn’t identify whether it was because of the judges being much more interrogative this time around or because the court room appeared to be a much more traditional version of the earlier Courtroom 1. Heavy oak doors and wooden panels throughout the courtroom, where the very few pops of colour came from oil paintings of former judges and respectable figures.

It was a different experience; to witness judges making comments which we would usually read in the obiter dicta’s of cases, to witness how ‘the client’ really just means the barrister handling the case who’s fighting his case to wits end and to see attentive lawyers and interns jotting down notes between arguments.

There’s so much more to the judgments that we read than just words typed out in textbooks and those uploaded online.

We ended the trip with a visit to the Supreme Court library; which was a rare occurrence as visitors were not normally allowed to enter its premises. The library itself was divided into two levels, one on the first floor and the other being a sub-level room; we were cordoned off to one corner of the upper section.

On the shelves were a mix of thumbed-through textbooks which could be found on our tables at home as well, and leather bound books in languages some of us couldn’t even identify.

The trip ended with a Christmas carolling session; an ethereal image of talented carollers, staff of the court house and barristers alike looking down at the lyrics for the songs and belting out tunes from the top of their lungs. The words ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ were glowing blue above us all.

The trip was a form of encouragement for us to compete, to survive and thrive and mesmerize; most of us have only a few months left in this amazing country; so its best we make full use of it.

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Cheska Tatiana (front; second from right) at the UK Supreme Court 

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