A court room before a trial

I’ve never been to court, never been naughty or unfortunate enough.  My experience is limited to TV crime shows with wigs and gowns, and news reports of victims reading tragic statements outside grand buildings. 

A magistrate friend of mine, hearing about Make Time Count’s effort to reduce the court backlog, invited me to court for the day. To set expectations, he warned of run down buildings and lots of “hanging around”. Well, I wasn’t disappointed. 

Note: To preserve anonymity of all concerned, I won’t discuss the exact location, date or names of those involved. 

On a rather damp morning, I met my friend outside the court building. He gave me a quick overview of court proceedings and following an airport-like security check, I was on my own. I scanned the waiting area, mums with pushchairs, chaps in new suits, a couple of coppers sitting around on their phones and solicitors taking clients into small rooms for prep chats. Certainly a long way from the movies’ marble corridors, more of a shabby community centre, where a vending machine with sugary delights stood next to a machine dispensing undelightful weak coffee. Poster boards full of everything from explanations of the rights of various participants in the process to ads for drink driving awareness courses surrounded me.

I spoke to an usher who explained that, as long as my phone was off and I respected proceedings, I could enter and leave any of the court rooms that were sitting on that day.

For my first ever live court case, what would be my first juicy proceeding? Murder, blackmail, international espionage, no – “using a mobile phone while driving” – ok not quite Rompold, but let’s see what happens. As the hearing commenced, the prosecutor explained that there was very little, or no, evidence to support this case and he wasn’t sure why it had been brought to court. The magistrates agreed and offered the young lady £30 for her 96 mile round trip and parking. Case dismissed. As the next case wasn’t ready yet, the bench (the three magistrates) adjourned. They did this quite frequently, I learned.  Ok, not quite an illustrious start. 

Next case, stalking, definitely more interesting.  I felt quite uncomfortable hearing a solicitor read threatening texts verbatim, and the liberal use of the C-bomb makes you realise how offensive people can be. In our adversarial justice system, everybody gets a defence, but when the defence lawyer is suggesting that the wording on the proposed court order is amended, it suggests that even she felt little sympathy for the client and the outcome. In this case, a decision was made to allow Police, at any point over the next five years, to check the person’s phone for any threatening behaviour. I wondered, given stretched resources, how often this would actually be carried out and whether this made the victim feel safe? 

Next up, burglary, £250 stolen and a broken window. “How do you plead?”. “Guilty”. Well that was an easy one. Despite having a 20 year self confessed drug addiction, the defendant was given the maximum allowed, 21 weeks. In addition was ordered to repay the £250 to the victim. Given the defendant’s situation,  I wondered whether that debt would ever actually get paid and the victim receive their cash back. I also wondered whether the defendant would get help with his drug addiction inside and, given the reoffending rate for short sentences of 60%+, how long it would be until he was back in the dock. 

After popping in and out of various cases before lunch, my final case for the day was illegal entry into the UK on a small boat. A topical case, given current headlines. I wondered whether we would hear more about the situation with people smugglers and the process for getting to these shores from Africa. However, through an interpreter, it turned out that there had been an apparent mistake in the person’s date of birth. He entered the court to be tried as an adult and left, apparently as a child of 16, with the court frantically looking for youth services to collect him and conduct an age check. 

With that, my day in court came to a close. My reflections? Indeed lots of wasted time, but also wasted lives. Decades of drug addiction, years of abusive relationships, months of pan global travel, defendants that appeared more familiar than me with court rooms and proceedings. The missing voice from the day – the victim. In none of the cases I participated in was the victim present. In only one case were the wishes of the victim discussed, but then dismissed due to fears of coercion, from the defendant. 

My advice is to go to court and see for yourself. In the famous words of one judge “people come to me for justice, what they get is a verdict”. Spend a day in court. Make up your own mind about our justice system.  If you want to know more about becoming a magistrate, click here

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