Friday, 1 November 2019

Noises on and off: in the magistrates' court

When it comes to penetrating the studied opacity of a magistrates' court I'm a bungling novice, so I'm waiting for the appearance of a defendant who's already been bailed and gone home.

I'm encumbered by my sodden folding umbrella (the stand at the entrance is reserved for weapon-umbrellas, the non-telescopic kind).

I am in a row of public seats at the back. About 18 inches in front of these seats is a horizontal steel cylinder, the height of my jaw when seated. I feel penned in. When I inadvertently knock the bar's upright hollow metal support, it sounds like the demonic church bells from the drug-induced Dream of a Witches' Sabbath in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The courtoom is largely composed of horizontals, from the long wood panels behind the wide raised bench to the narrow stripes in the carpet tiles. This makes the greenish verticals between the security glass panels of the dock rather striking: they evoke bars.

The dock's separateness says 'guilty as hell'. It has a locked glass door to the courtroom and another door at the back leading to mysteries below. There are chairs and a big red panic button. Defendants who have been detained emerge through the internal door. Those who have not been detained are ushered into the dock from the courtroom by an official and locked in. (This contrasts with the doorless lavatory cubicles in the same building.)

The official takes away the key. The defendant stands when addressed by the person I assume to be a district judge, no longer called a stipendiary magistrate, who is wearing a lot of very white pearls.  

When it's quiet you can hear the clock ticking. The microphones for bench, clerk and advocates create a flattering, authoritative resonance. The person in the dock is miked differently if at all and speaks from a different acoustic: the effect is drier, duller.

In Winchester Crown Court I saw the Naked Rambler lean forward in the dock at times, straining to catch through the glass what was being said in the courtroom, and thereby forced to adopt a servile posture.

Much has been said about the message sent out by the dock. At least this one can be seen from the public seats. In many courts, including some built this century, it is not.

To the left of the bench, a door leading backstage is propped wide open with three legal tomes. Behind it, another door stands open onto a corridor from which we occasionally hear incongruous snatches of conversation and laughter. Mortals at liberty are glimpsed walking past on a raised level, indifferent to the courtroom scene.

The accumulation of cases is depressing. If someone is already working mostly to pay fines, what is the effect of imposing another fine? If someone can be provoked to violence, or has a mental disorder, or has been changed by long-term use of drugs, or has had a miserable education or a rotten family life or any combination of these factors, is another prison sentence going to accomplish anything other than keep an offender out of the public's way for a while?

During a brief adjournment, someone pops his head round the door for a chat with his colleagues.
'What have you got later?' he asks.
'All your rubbish from Court 10.'

Outside in the waiting area, a lawyer at the end of his tether addresses the air: 'I've been waiting for a Polish interpreter for one and a half hours.'  He is a living cliché from the well-documented, underfunded travails of the justice system.

The day ends with a surprise trip to A&E for excellent treatment from EU citizens in an understaffed hospital, a last hurrah before the NHS swirls down the plughole of despicable political ambition.Will the justice system join it?




Saturday, 12 October 2019

In court with Extinction Rebellion

When it comes to stopping London traffic, Extinction Rebellion is pathetic. They may be creating up to two weeks' inconvenience, but there's no let-up from TfL's ever-tightening stranglehold all over the city.

Meanwhile the court system, already congested, struggles to deal with XR arrestees from the April action. City of London Magistrates' Court is processing most of them. Today, about 50 are attending plea hearings. A cluster of the red rebel brigade, with their whitened Buster Keaton great stone faces, clings to the doorway like a scarlet sea anemone waving its tentacles.

The staff are under pressure. One of them prods my handbag. 'Is that a bottle?'
'Do you want me to drink some?'
'Yes,' he says, but turns away.
I ask him to watch, which annoys him, but I'm not going through this pantomime without an audience.

About 30 people crowd into a small annexe to Court 4 - defendants, being rapidly briefed by a solicitor, plus supporters. Vegan snacks are spread out on a table - cereal bars, grapes, bread, hummus, nuts (courtesy of XR, not the court). In this air-conditioned building the room is stifling. An official opens the misty double-glazed windows. Something for an eco architect to sort out. We hear the occasional banshee wail from the red brigade outside.

A woman tells me that, while protesters were sleeping in a crypt last night, an infiltrator stole electronic music equipment, including one man's entire music output. Back up, people. Also her phone, which contained her rail ticket home.

Eight defendants who have pleaded guilty are ushered into the functional starkly lit court room, together with their supporters, who outnumber them and sit at the back.

'I was locked on to the hearse on Trafalgar Square yesterday,' says the supporter next to me. She released herself as the police didn't have time to get round to everyone. How do glued-on people unstick themselves? She says you can use acetone or Coca-Cola, which confirms everything I've always thought about that evil drink. I ask politely about the lavatory arrangements for the glued-on and I'm told people bring round buckets.

The district judge is businesslike but benign and keeps the atmosphere calm. The defendants have been charged under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 - generally because they ignored police instructions to leave a static, passive protest. A policeman is quoted: 'I saw the defendant lying in the carriageway singing.'

The youngest is a student aged 19, the oldest is retired. Three women, five men. One is represented by a lawyer. The magistrate advises the others to note what the lawyer says in case it helps their own statements.

'We will hear very eloquent speeches from the self-represented,' says the lawyer to the magistrate. 'Think about the range of people before you and the number. This is possibly the largest campaign of civil disobedience for 150 years.' Is he referring to the Chartists?

He quotes an apocalyptic open letter from Professor James Hansen, NASA's former head of climate research, which highlights catastrophic 'climate denialism and associated pseudo-scientific canards.' I think it's this one.

The lawyer adds that the protest 'is about the survival of humanity itself. Bear in mind their good character, the danger they seek to avoid, the clear scientific consensus and the failure of government to act.'

In justifying their actions he refers to the case of R v Jones (Margaret) [2007] 1 AC 136. Ask a lawyer.

The magistrate says that he has 'spoken eloquently on behalf of all the defendants', and has claimed that 'the law has been broken for a noble motive' using a 'scientific basis'.

Among the observers sits a tricoteuse. Crochet, anyway. She casts on and does about four rows of openwork using two skeins of thick yarn simultaneously, pink and purple. She is wearing the black tee shirt with glittery spider motif in honour of the Supreme Court's prorogation judgment. It has become clique-wear. Like mods and their parkas. Or some French aristocrats during the Revolution and their blood-red necklaces or ribbons in defiance of the guillotine.

The remaining seven defendants each make a short speech in mitigation, mostly from notes, although the one who apologises for not having prepared anything speaks concisely and makes a good impression. She works with children in care and doesn't want to risk her career. 'I'm deeply sorry people have been impacted... I am ashamed and terrified by being arrested but I sent a message to our government that I'd no longer be complicit in this mass extinction.' She is reluctant to have children.

The magistrate says that she has expressed her 'moral obligation' and this term is adopted by other defendants.

On the Strand
'I'm the sort of person who always follows the rules,' says a scientist with a PhD and two young children. The current level of carbon dioxide was last seen three million years ago. 'Brexit will be a side-show in comparison [but there's linkage - Ed.]. I don't want to disrupt people - I feel incredibly uncomfortable with that...There is no non-extreme future. There will be extreme cuts or extreme impacts. Nature doesn't do deals... You can't argue with the physics... Environmental activists are being killed in other countries... I was kept for two hours in a van and 24 hours in a cell, with no phone call allowed until the next day, causing distress to my family... This should be a political issue. Calling us "uncooperative crusties" is not helpful.'

The magistrate points out that many defendants 'are highly qualified people with insight into the issues.'

They continue.

'I plead technically guilty, morally innocent.' (That is not recognised by the court.)

'The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Since 1970, 77% of airborne insects have disappeared.' I think of the tapestry of insects which no longer impacts the windscreen on motorways.

'I didn't expect to find myself as a middle-aged man in the back of a police van... I apologise for taking police away from normal duties... Many officers shared our concerns if not our methods... I would have acted differently if I'd known how this was going to play out.'

'Business as usual is killing us.'

'The Government declared a climate emergency after our last action.'

Charles I looks down Whitehall where he was beheaded
The district judge says that, unusually for people who break the law, 'you did it from a sound motivation and genuine and legitimate concern about the planet and man's activities.' Even so, 'it is the court's duty to look at offences from all perspectives.' The police statement said that there was 'very considerable impact on transport infrastructure, local people and business.'

Each defendant is of good character. One defendant's encounter with a class A drug is old enough to be exempt. Another's 'excellent A-Levels' have been referred to earlier, so keep revising, kids.

Full credit is given for a guilty plea, making the sentence 'lower than it might otherwise have been.'

Each is given a conditional discharge for six months. 'If you choose to commit an offence and are found guilty, this matter can be reopened and you can be sentenced afresh.' They are given two months to pay £105 - three months in the case of the student. The magistrate asks those who want information about the police body-worn footage to stay and talk to him.

I leave court and go to the Strand, where rough sleepers open another chasm.

It's easy to feel alienated by the dominant tribe within XR - the public yoga, the suffocating middle-classness, the terrible poetry which admits no criticism, the right-on self-righteousness. Don't patronise me, don't parade your cloying sense of moral superiority.

But in court today the argument is distilled. The professional framework, the crisp pace and the display of true conviction without the dafter stunts help to unscramble the message. And I like the stipe, who combines a man-of-the-people air with the reassurance of a top-class obstetrician.

NB if you want to find out about court listings and other data, good luck.

I wander around Trafalgar Square, hoping to see any of the people I used to draw in the emotional sprawl of the Occupy camps, most of all our beloved Tom who avoided the horrors to come by dying at the age of 28.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

'Carnival Compilation' at Kensington Town Hall

Some of my Notting Hill Carnival drawings were included in a display at Kensington Town Hall in Hornton Street from July-September 2019. All are Elimu Mas Academy except the first one which is from the Launch of the Bands 2019. With thanks to Carnival Village Trust.








Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Cherry/Miller2: in court for the judgment

Ink and rainwater
Wet. More wet. Queue in rain from 7am. Hide from cameras. Not easy. Sky journalist Adam Boulton's beige cloth coat is drenched and clings to his bulky form. The crews and photographers are soggy but jocular. I eat a Gregg's croissant.

The omens aren't great. On his way in, Michael Fordham QC pauses to talk briefly to the only man queueing without an umbrella. A couple of minutes later, a member of staff emerges to lend him a big black Supreme Court umbrella. It does not open properly. It does not provide comfort or shelter. This is bad. Someone else in the queue assists. Together they keep it held open.

Even worse: on day 2 of the hearing Aidan O'Neill QC, representing Joanna Cherry QC MP, is going large on Celtic twilight and says 'Macbeth' in open court. Surely that's as ominous as pronouncing it in a theatre? Shouldn't he follow thesps' tradition and leave the court, spin around three times, spit, swear and knock on the door for Derek Allen the Court Usher to let him back in?

It's all been getting to me. On Saturday Shirley Ballas, the Lady Hale of Strictly Come Dancing, impatiently removes a random insect which has flown into her hairdo. It lands on the table in front of her and Bruno Tonioli smashes his number 8 paddle down on it. Will there be conflict and dissent among the eleven Justices? No wonder they aren't allowed gavels.

Shortly before opening time, we are handed our salmon pink tickets. Mine gets soaked. I could have been having a different kind of watery experience, in Venice, my spiritual home, with my friend Jacqueline. I have chosen to be here, among puddles, not canals or lagoons.

Into the courtroom. As Lady Hale begins to speak, a thousand fingers on keyboards patter like sweet rain on the desert where a howling hot wind has been blowing a storm of lies into our faces.

We forget to breathe.

When she says 'unanimous' there are suppressed gasps.

It could be happening.

More gasps and a whispered 'Jeeze' when she says 'unlawful'.

In her judgment she goes back to 1611 - the likely date of the first public performance of Macbeth, although it was performed earlier for King James.


When it's over I stand at the back of the courtroom with water running down my face and Michael Fordham QC touches my shoulder on his way out.

I get an urgent message from Jacqueline. Can I fnd out where Lady Hale got her spider brooch? It's news to me that she's wearing one as I couldn't see her from my seat. But the iconography fits.  For the hearings, Lady Hale was wearing dragonFLIES and a butterFLY. Today, an arachnid...

On Saturday night I flicked between Strictly and Götterdämmerung on Radio 3, blind to the true prophecy.



Friday, 20 September 2019

Prorogation cases: Cherry/Miller 2 in the Supreme Court, day 3

Tense, head down, guarded by a phalanx of police officers, Gina Miller walks swiftly to the Supreme Court entrance. 'Disgusting,' shouts an agitated man in a lime green hoodie.

'You're doing a great job,' calls out Leo, a German exchange student at King's College London from the French institution Sciences Po, cradle of Marcel Proust, Christian Dior and Emmanuel Macron. He has a mane of red-gold hair from his Celtic grandmother. 'Thank you,' says Gina Miller.

It's the third and final day of R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister and Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland.

There's a holiday feeling in the queue - we're enjoying a temporary break watching the grown-ups in court rather than the political Punch and Judy show with its rhetoric made of artificial sausages.


Femi Oluwole, the Darlington-born Remain idol whose idiomatic French has been admired by Michel Barnier, is out here making two of his couldn't-be-clearer explainer videos and interviewing Jolyon Maugham QC, founder of the Good Law Project which is backing Joanna Cherry QC MP's case.

Later, Femi goes to Downing Street with a demand to end the prorogation and icons collide when he meets Larry the Cat - I stole this still from a Twitter clip:

Into the court we go. 'Oh no, where's my ticket? If I've lost it I'm ****ed,' someone observes correctly. That little rectangle of coloured paper, handed to us by friendly court staff who engage in the banter outside, is our treasured entry to Courtroom 1.

Lady Hale warns Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC: 'You might have to speak up a bit.' She explains that the microphones don't necessarily amplify your voice: they are there to 'ensure that it's transmitted worldwide.'

Advocates are focused solely on the bench whereas the court is acutely conscious of its entire audience, well beyond the back of the courtroom (today barely containing a tide of constitutional law geekery which over the next decades will make its way towards the front). Lord Wilson warns Ronan Lavery QC, representing the victims' rights campaigner from Northern Ireland, Raymond McCord: 'I'm really worried about your submissions. So many people are listening to you. Perhaps some of them have just turned on and they will hear these points, these general points about Brexit and its effect on Northern Ireland, and...may come to an entirely wrong conclusion, namely that this is what we are looking at. Now don't abuse our politeness and don't abuse Lady Hale's patience.' A student whispers, 'Wow.'


Michael Fordham QC's personal volume control is erratic, sometimes startlingly so, but his style is arresting.


One downside of being at the back is that you can't see the rich cavalcade of Sir James Eadie QC's facial expressions while his opponents are speaking. Poker cannot be his game.

At lunchtime Sir James walks out of the courtroom and down the stairs to the lawyers' quarters carrying a small plate of sandwiches and crisps. They must have been magicked up to the courtroom by someone on his team.

On one side of me is an undergraduate who has braved a long journey on public transport with a crutch, having dislocated her knee six times. On the other side is an LLB student whose interest in constitutional law comes from being Ukrainian.

The hearing is allowed to overrun by 15 minutes. This is important. The back rows don't want it to end. The court is a prelapsarian place of greater safety. Before the potential prolapse of the judgment. Prerogative. Prorogation. Oh Christ.

We don't hear the shouty crowds outside because of the triple glazing. The court has become our reality. The sunlit beauty of St James's Park feels staged. I walk to the Royal Over-Seas League in search of carbohydrates. The information screen in the foyer says that the Teeth Meeting is in the Wrench Room. Good grief, I've been a member for 25 years and still haven't a clue what goes on here. 

There is abundant legal commentary on social media. The Supreme Court Yearbook is learned but approachable, while The Supreme Court: A Guide for Bears caters for a niche audience.


You don't normally have to queue for the court's hearings, which are free and open to all; live and recorded footage is on the court's website, judgment summaries are on YouTube.



Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Miller 2 at the Supreme Court: day 1

As with the Proms, you may get better sound and vision if you watch the Supreme Court on the live-stream, and today it's more like the Proms than usual as you have to queue. Someone here got up at 2am to drive from Wales.

There is enough bright-eyed consitutional law expertise in this queue to set up a new nation. Enthusiasts from LSE and King's College London include the nephew of a Supreme Court justice from another country and a descendant of Mohammed.

Protests against prorogation are silent and dignified (the abrasive counter-protest is to turn up later). A disconsolate Hulk is joined by RoboCop but otherwise there is hardly any visible policing. Law tutor and PhD student Robert Craig, who has arrived on a bike, is shielded by a friend with a coat while he changes out of his brown trousers - symbolic garb of the sentient part of the UK at the moment - into the pin-stripes that complete his three-piece suit, ready for his TV interviews.

Time to go in and we're told we can't take in liquids. A lot of bottles are instantly emptied against the walls of the court, giving it an unseemly air. A man is not allowed to take his big Europe flag beyond security.

I'm forced to wonder what will happen to the Supreme Court carpet (Welsh leek, Northern Irish flax flower, Scottish thistle, Tudor rose) in any Brexit aftermath.

Lady Hale stills the courtroom by calmly pointing out that the matter in hand has nothing to do with how or when the UK leaves the EU. Then R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister and Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland begin and a thousand legal commentators take flight on social media. The man next to me takes out his opera glasses.

In the courtroom we hear the skittering of fingers on keyboards, the occasional forbidden peeping and chirruping of devices, some in lawyers' hands. For the morning's queue-and-court experience try @louise_rowntree.

In my limited amateur experience, the more important the case, the earlier the bundle malfunction starts, and this case is no exception, but even so it's a huge relief to be in a legal arena. There is just one flag - that of the Supreme Court. Crude political jabber is absent.

We are in the realm of the grown-ups, who aim to conduct reasoned arguments using facts and laws as a basis for interpretation, rather than whipping up tribal emotions for undisclosed ends. David Pannick is made for voice-overs selling life insurance. With a reassuring warmth in his voice, he is calm, earnest, clear, steady of pace, and not rattled when interventions from the bench change the rhythm.

Lady Hale is wearing her silver dragonfly brooch. Because of the dwindling insect population I have spotted only one dragonfly in my garden this year. We should be concentrating on the environmental crisis in front of our noses, not squabbling about boundaries.








Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The UK Supreme Court Yearbook Vol. 9

Lawyers planning to throw the book at Boris Johnson should go for this one. It's heavy. It also shows how the Supreme Court works, which may come as news to chainsaw-wielding political advisers.

The foreword by Lord Mance, Europe Farewell?, warns against isolation, with reference to the CJEU:

'Achieving an appropriate balance between centralising and national tendencies was and is always bound to be an ongoing process. The government's review, prior to the referendum, of the balance of competences at a European and national level did not suggest any fundamental imbalance. In such a situation, rather than simply condemn the whole system of adjudication by the CJEU, one might have expected that any particular issues could be resolved by collaboration... On the basis that the UK remained within the EU, it was possible to envisage that it might have fulfilled a leadership role in relation to the CJEU... With Brexit, the prospect of any significant influence being exercised by either the UK or by its Supreme Court in such matters would become sadly negligible.'

The introduction, by the editor-in-chief, Dr Daniel Clarry, illuminates the SC's approach to obiter dicta. With starry contributors including senior judges, SC-haunting QCs and academics, the rest of the volume is divided into four: Commentaries and Reflections; The Cutting Edge of Dishonesty, a symposium on Ivey v Genting Casinos, in which Lady Hale's vivid description of edge sorting will be of interest to card sharps and croupiers; The 2017-18 Legal Year in Review; and the Wisden-like Composition, Statistics and Table of Cases.

The frontispiece is my sketch of Owens v Owens, the appeal about contested divorce. The experience of a short person in the public seats is based on the backs of heads and seats. Foreground right is Margaret Heathcote, Chair of Resolution, First for Family Law.

In the judgment, Lady Hale stated: ‘I have found this a very troubling case. It is not for us to change the law laid down by Parliament – our role is only to interpret and apply the law that Parliament has given us.’ 

One of the aims of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, introduced in June 2019, is to do away with contested divorce. It received a second reading but is now, like other useful measures including the Domestic Abuse Bill, stuck down the Brexit sump. And while earthlings bicker about politics the seething planet prepares to discard its human mantle in favour of more agreeable company, such as bacteria.

The UK Supreme Court Yearbook Volume 9: 2017-2018 Legal Year, edited by Daniel Clarry, published by Appellate Press, £120 from Wildy's