Yesterday I spent several hours in court – a Crown Court in London, to be precise.
No, I was not in the dock, which I’m sure was the first assumption made by many readers, nor was I a witness, or serving on a jury. I was in fact there at the invitation of a friend, who happens to be a Crown Court judge. From an elevated bench, located a discreet distance from his own, I had a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings. I had never been in an English courtroom before, as I had mentioned to my friend at a dinner party, hence his kind invitation.
The case over which he was presiding was far from sensational. It was, sadly, rather routine, an incident of domestic violence. A young man was charged with causing actual bodily harm to the victim in her own home. If there was an unusual aspect to the case, it was that the victim was not the defendant’s wife but his mother.
Clad in a fur-collared parka that made no concession to respectful courtroom attire, he sat impassively in the glass-enclosed dock, his head barely visible – and sometimes not visible at all as he stared down at his feet – a forlorn figure all-too familiar with the environment.
Depending on which account was to be believed, that of counsel for the defence, or of the prosecutor, the defendant, after a heated argument about money, had pursued his mother up the stairs of her home – and sometimes his – and dragged her down by her ankles, in the process breaking one of them. Hospital treatment had been required and she had spent several weeks in a cast. It was the mother herself who had reluctantly, and apparently in exasperation, filed the complaint with the police.
The jury spent less than an hour reaching its verdict. My untutored expectation, as well as the judge’s experienced anticipation, was that he would be acquitted – in my case a conclusion probably influenced by watching too many American courtroom dramas on television, in which verdicts delivered swiftly were almost invariably acquittals.
On reflection, I might have worked out that the defendant’s fate must have been more or less sealed by the appearance of his mother in court as the chief witness for the prosecution. Although she was too inarticulate and too nervous to be a convincing witness, her very presence may alone have persuaded the jurors that, to provoke her into testifying against him, her son must be a very nasty piece of work.
I had expected the defence counsel to tear her flimsy, sometime tearful testimony to pieces, but in the event he was rather gentle. This I put down to his calculated desire not to provoke an emotional outburst that might resonate with the jury even more than her presence.
The prosecutor, more mysteriously, was equally reticent, probably reckoning that her appearance alone said enough about her relationship with the son to convince the jury that he was indeed a bad egg. And so he proved to be when, after the jury had been dismissed, his prior criminal record was revealed: a pathetic life of minor crime that including convictions for theft and battery, a series of police warnings and a couple of court orders that barred him from going within one hundred metres of his mother’s house, and which he had breached by being there.
My judicial friend had not anticipated a long trial, but even he was taken aback when the whole business was disposed of within four hours. For this he apologised. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t have a more contentious case,” he said.
“It was interesting enough for a first outing,” I replied. “Perhaps next time – if there is one – you’ll get a Ripper-style serial murderer.”
I would have been better served sitting in the adjoining courtroom, where a Pentecostal bishop was on trial for sexually assaulting several of his parishioners. “Now, that’s more like it,” I ventured, perhaps inappropriately.
“But it’s not the usual grist for our mill,” the presiding judge in that case observed. “We deal, on a daily basis, with the commonplace: muggers, wife-beaters, petty fraudsters and the like. And at least you saw a complete trial.”
I came away well satisfied with that – and reassured that the process of dispensing justice is in safe hands. The system undoubtedly creaks at times, and the machinery may grind on less than efficiently at the best of them, but given all the moving human parts involved I satisfied myself that it works, and works fairly and democratically.
The sight of those twelve good men (and women) and true, an ethnic cross-section of palpably ordinary Londoners filing into the jury box, would have reassured me that all was well with the law, even if nothing else had.
I shall go again, even if merely as an observer from the public gallery.