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?