Thursday, 1 March 2012

A first brush with justice

By Alan Selby, @Selbars

The last two days were a new experience. When I moved to London six months ago I had promised myself that I would visit one of the numerous courts within walking distance of where I live, and when I heard about Open Justice Week I saw the perfect opportunity to finally do so.

Despite sailing through my court reporting exam, passing my 100 word per minute shorthand exam and – ostensibly – being qualified for what I was about to do, I had never actually set foot in court. I had never applied any of this to a real situation.

I don’t really know where the court is back home, in Middlesbrough, but it’s hard to miss court buildings in London – particularly the Royal Courts of Justice, the first that I visited. This colossus of Gothic architecture rises imposingly out of The Strand, with its huge arches and spires towering above the end of Fleet Street.

My most direct experience of the dark, intimidating main entrance had always been on television. Having seen people emerge into a swarm of cameras and journalists had done little to educate me about how things actually work there, however. It took me a while to overcome my apprehension and persuade myself that, yes, this was also the door that I was supposed to use and that, yes, I was allowed to do so.

After taking the plunge I emerged into the vast great hall and onto an ornate marble floor that stretched into the distance. The entire building was as ostentatious as it appeared from the outside, but once I had passed through the security gates I realised, as families and school children began to pass by, that everything was probably going to be ok. It was hard to tell where to go next from the cause lists on display, given my difficulty in making sense of the limited information available, but the lady at the information desk suggested I should either go to courts one to nine to see a criminal case, or court 73 for the Leveson Inquiry. Still feeling a little overwhelmed I settled for the more straightforward option, and headed for court 73.

After bumbling around the rabbit warren of corridors, pretending I knew where I was going and trying to veil my ignorance by looking as confident as possible, I eventually found the place. It got easier as I got closer to the gaggle of journalists hovering outside, and it also became clear that we weren’t all going to fit inside the courtroom. I opted to head for the annex, the glorified tent in the car park into which proceedings were being beamed via a multitude of enormous plasma screens. On my way down I had a chance encounter with Lord Leveson himself, who didn’t seem too impressed by the slightly sweaty, bearded man ambling down the stairs towards him.

Simon Hughes MP was giving evidence, discussing an intrusion into his private life by journalists working for The Sun. He told the inquiry that in 2006, when he was favourite to become the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, The Sun had managed to get hold of his mobile phone records, and with them evidence of calls to a gay chat line. The sequence of events led, he said, to him becoming the 4-1 outsider in the race. I would later spot the story in The Evening Standard, and it became one of the main talking points from the day’s proceedings.

By the time I had settled into my surroundings I realised that, as the Leveson Inquiry is broadcast live to the public anyway, I should probably try and find some proceedings that were a little less accessible. I made my way back into the main building and up the stone steps to the first floor, where criminal hearings were taking place, passing by portraits of stern looking old men in wigs and the occasional suit of armour. It was reasonably intimidating to me, so I can only imagine how it must feel for those people whose visit is motivated by something more pressing than idle curiosity – appealing a criminal conviction, say.

Unfortunately more or less the only proceedings still running by this stage concerned an application that was subject to reporting restrictions. A quick search for section 71 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 on my phone (I decided to leave my hefty copy of McNae’s, the court reporting bible, at home) led me to the conclusion that, whilst the case might be very interesting, I wouldn’t be able to say anything about it later.

I decided I might as well make the short trip down Fleet Street to the Old Bailey. I wasn’t planning on going until the next day, but it was only a short walk. Upon my arrival I quickly discovered that I couldn’t take my mobile phone inside, even if it was switched off, so decided to stick to my plan and return the next day. It wasn’t until later that I was told about a cafĂ© who will look after your phone for £1, but given my lack of familiarity, and the probable willingness of many Londoners to ‘look after’ my phone for £1, I think it was probably for the best that I didn’t start asking around in the nearby greasy spoons.

I returned bright and early the next day and, to my surprise, joined the back of a long queue for the public galleries. I waited for half an hour whilst the two security staff thoroughly searched people one by one, and family members rushed up the stairs to the front of the queue. Three of the schoolchildren in front had to be turned back after their phones – and one calculator – were discovered.

Eventually it was decided that the public galleries were full, and that everybody who wasn’t a family member would now have to go and see if there was still space in courts one to four. I did so, got straight in and went up the stairs to the galleries, where I asked the guards which courts were sitting. I chose court four, a drugs trial, and quietly opened the door to take my seat. This wasn’t easy, because more or less the entire courtroom was constructed of ancient oak that creaked in response to the slightest of movement.

I had already missed the start of proceedings, so was unable to get the defendant’s address and had little information to go on. Because of this I won’t be naming the defendant here, lest I risk defaming somebody. As I settled down the only noises coming from below were the stenographer’s quiet tapping and the booming, accusatory tones of the prosecution counsel, who was questioning the defendant. This alternated with the friendlier voice of the defence counsel, and the considered, drawling tone of the judge’s interjections as proceedings continued.

To my surprise, the proceedings were not particularly difficult to follow. The defendant was accused of knowingly importing £215,000 worth of cocaine on a flight from Barbados. He had been identified by a drug detection dog at Gatwick airport, where he was found to have more than 3kg of cocaine hidden in three suitcases. His defence was that he did not do so knowingly, because he was under the impression that he was transporting either cash or gold on behalf of a close friend who had asked him to do so. He said he had been promised between £2,000 and £3,000 in return, which he planned to use to pay for a personal training course.

The proceedings ambled along at a relatively sedate pace, punctuated by the schoolchildren who sidled in and out, and pausing only when the jury was asked to rise briefly so that counsel could speak with the judge. After a few hours I quietly retreated out of the courtroom and made my way back outside into the throbbing noise on the streets of London. I would have liked to stay longer, but I had exhausted the time I had available.

My two days in court had been an extremely interesting experience, once I had overcome my apprehensions. The Old Bailey had seemed more accessible than the Royal Courts of Justice, perhaps because the inside of the building itself is much less extravagant than the one I had visited the day before. It could equally have been that I had a day’s worth of experience behind me, or it could have been that I actually got to see a proper drugs trial.

Regardless, this had been a valuable insight into the world beyond what is normally portrayed by the ranks of cameras positioned at the entrance. As I made my way past them, wondering who they were waiting to pounce upon, I was quietly satisfied that I had now undertaken my first foray into court reporting. Admittedly there still seem to be 16-year-olds with more experience of court than me, but we all have to start somewhere.

Copyright remains with the author.

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