And I hope you like jammin' too
- Bob Marley
We're all stuck, computer screens freeze into lockdown at will, and we're having to improvise like mad.
What does social distancing mean for jury trials? The all-party law reform and human rights organisation Justice is experimenting with mock Crown Court trials online, to assess their workability and fairness. I'm tuning in to the fictitious case of R v Christopher Hallett, concerning alleged unlawful wounding with a wheel brace at a petrol station following an altercation about loud music played in an open-top car.
It's delayed by an hour and a half because a juror has tech problems. Then we see the virtual court with judge, jury, clerk, counsel, defendant, and witnesses in turn, like a pile-up of Punch and Judy booths, but there's no sound. I'd like a lip reader with me and a sign language interpreter on screen.
Prosecuting counsel wins on colour. His striking scarlet background seems to reinforce his message. Colour affects emotions. Red is a political colour to some. I would impose a neutral background.
Everyone else sits in the grey-to-magnolia spectrum apart from the judge, who appears in front of multiple versions of the royal coat of arms, wallpaper style.
I am uncomfortable with the prominence of the jury. I would rather not see them at all, as the present format allows them to be identified by people beyond the court. I certainly don't want to draw them.
At last the sound comes on. The judge is warning the jury that it can be hard to concentrate on a virtual scene: 'I ought to notice if any of you drifts off... I will say generally "time to wake up" as it were...' He points out that the jury's on-screen view of the witness is 'as good as if not better than the view you get in court' but balances that by saying that a blind judge is not at a disadvantage. I think of Sir John Fielding, the blind eighteenth century magistrate whose innovations helped to bring about stipendiary magistrates and the Bow Street Runners.
Next, prosecuting counsel piles on the drama: the defendant used a wheel brace 'to strike, to assault, to hit...'
There is bundle malfunction. Everyone can see the document except the judge. 'Don't worry about me,' he says, probably for the first and last time in his career on the bench.
There is an awful lot of face-touching, mainly from counsel and judge. Defence counsel manages finger licking too. A juror sneezes.
I'm drawing in an aimless sort of way. Sketching in the courts below the UK Supreme Court is illegal. I recently got in touch with the Royal Courts of Justice to check that this applied to hearings that were currently streamed. They confirmed that I would have to draw from memory - either switching off my device or retreating to another room. I pointed out that the picture would look like a Francis Bacon screaming pope with a Laura Ashley border. Today I'm ignoring the stricture as this is a mock-up.
In a virtual courtroom, no one knows what else you might have on your split screen. I resisted the stream from the Metropolitan Opera (Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas) and a random episode of Crown Court, a magnificent TV series which you are too young to know about but can be found on YouTube.
The brief lunch break is like a Shakespearean scene of comings and goings, overhearings and misunderstandings in a twilit forest, with Puckish technology thwarting the unwary. Individual cells blacken and flicker back to life. The judge removes his wig for some more face and head touching and stares into his camera.
'The public are still listening,' the clerk warns judge and counsel.
'I'm going to mute my video,' says the judge, 'in case some gossip comes into my head that I can't resist sharing with you and the whole world.'
After the break, glitches are resolved. Professor Linda Mulcahy from Oxford University, one of the independent academics who is evaluating the test, does a brilliant turn as a witness for the defence. When the jury retires, the judge reckons that they won't reach a verdict: 'I'll give you odds,' he says, but fails to run an illegal book.
'Have you reached a verdict?' asks the clerk.
'No,' says the forewoman. The judge beams. In a show of hands, seven would convict, three would acquit, two don't know.
This is the fictional case of R v Christopher Hallett, indicted for s20 Offences Against the Person Act unlawful wounding. HH Alistair McCreath is presiding at the virtual Crown Court, Pimlico. The prosecutor is Mark Trafford QC. Defence counsel is Rosina Cottage QC.
Further details: https://justice.org.uk/our-work/justice-covid-19-response/