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A day in the life of a South London magistrates’ court

Penelope Gibbs
27 Jan 2017

I spend a lot of time reading accounts of court life on twitter and blogs, but its a salutary experience to see it first hand.  I spent the day this week in a South London magistrates’ court and many things struck me.

1) the court is theoretically open, but feels closed.  When I wandered into court to observe, I was the only non-family member in the public gallery and it was clear that independent observers were rare.

2) In two of the courts there was a bench of two magistrates rather than three (as is good practice). Given that magistrate numbers have been reduced by 40% in the last eight years because of falling workload, it seems that they may have miscalculated the number of magistrates they need, and reduced numbers too far.

3) There was a video link in the court between three nearby police stations and the court room (to enable defendants in the police station to “appear” in court).  The technology was sub-standard.  The camera angle in the police station meant that we saw the top of each defendant’s head – they were not face on. The sound was poor and there was only one screen in the court-room.  Communication between lawyer and defendant, and between defendant and interpreter was much worse than it would have been had the defendant been in the court-room – the lawyer could not have a quick word in private with their client.

I could live with the downsides of the police station-video link if I could see that the convenience of the video link massively outweighed them.  But I couldn’t understand why most of the defendants who appeared in the police station could not have come to court in person -the police stations were all only half an hour’s drive away, or less.  If the police insisted, the defendants could have been brought to court by van, but I thought most of the ones I saw could have been bailed and trusted to get to court themselves – they were accused of relatively minor crimes.

4) I question the risk assessment involved in keeping so many defendants in police and court cells and then forcing them to appear in the secure dock in court.  I saw behind the secure dock

– a very ill alcoholic woman accused of shoplifting

– someone who had been arrested in his own home for non payment of court fines

– a man who had got the wrong court date in his diary and been arrested for not turning up at court on the right day.

None of these people needed to be detained in custody, or appear in the secure dock, but it didn’t seem to occur to anyone to allow them to appear in open court.  All were released after their hearing was finished.  The charity Justice has been campaigning against the use of the secure dock for two years but, so far, practice in court has not changed.

5) Despite my reading that case files were now digital, most of the players in court were still using paper files, and many hearings were held up either because no-one, or only one person, had the information about the case.

6) Perhaps the most shocking case was that of a young man accused of assault and threatened with being remanded in custody.  The man appeared on video link from the police station having been arrested for assaulting his older brother (who had some bruises) in their parents’ family home.  The defendant denied assault though admitted there had been a fight.  This was classed as “domestic violence” and the prosecution asked for the defendant to be remanded in custody, given the risk of further violence.  The defendant had no previous convictions, though police reports indicated he was inclined to get involved in family fights. Given that the alleged offence was clearly the result of a fight between two fit adult brothers, and the defendant had no criminal record, there seemed no reason to remand in custody.  The prosecution lawyer herself didn’t seem too convinced and, in the end, the bench gave the defendant bail as long as he didn’t live in the family home, or go near his brother.

7) No-where in the court was there any written information which might have helped unrepresented defendants (15-20% of those appearing in court).  If you had no lawyer, and had not come to a criminal court before, you would have been totally reliant on the kindness of court staff.

I resolved to visit court much more often.  There is nothing like observing cases for understanding quite how flawed our criminal justice system is.