The more you think about it, the stranger it becomes that we accept this gap in our knowledge as something that is OK.Vinod Aithal, courtwatcher
I’m lucky enough never to have been in trouble with the law. I’ve never been stopped and searched, or even fined for speeding. If you asked me what would happen if I was ever to be arrested, I’d have to tell you I have absolutely no idea.
This might be reassuring for some, but I’ve recently come to realise that it’s a terrifying thought that there’s a system of courts in this country which processes thousands of people a year, has the power to change everything about someone’s life in an instant, and yet works in a way that’s almost hidden in plain sight.
If I read the local news or even go onto my local Facebook group, I see reports of crimes and arrests. But then no more. There is very little coverage of crimes dealt with in the magistrates’ courts, so you never know what happens next. Did the courts deliver a sentence that will prevent more crime happening? Was the arrested person found not guilty? Was there something else about the case that never made it to the press or social media?
The more you think about it, the stranger it becomes that we accept this gap in our knowledge as something that is OK.
Last year I began studying law and volunteering for Citizens Advice. I’ve started to learn about how the legal system works and to see how it doesn’t always deliver justice. This summer I started looking for opportunities to watch some trials, but I soon discovered that the courts don’t make it easy for people to pay them a visit. I found it hard to find listings and the rules for what I could and couldn’t do when watching a trial. So, I was immediately interested when I came across a Twitter post from Transform Justice asking for people to register as volunteer courtwatchers. I signed up straight away.
What I learned in the excellent CourtWatch London training sessions is that even if the courts are working perfectly, the lack of transparency in their decision-making is a real problem. Although little hard data has been collected to prove or disprove it, there are serious concerns that racial and class bias are built into the system, which calls into question whether it’s working in everyone’s best interests. If it’s not, then we’re all in danger, whether it’s being the victim of crime or receiving a harsher sentence than we deserve.
Bringing greater transparency to the magistrates’ courts will, I hope, start the ball rolling on wider public engagement with the courts and the justice system. People’s knowledge about such an important part of our lives should go beyond what they see on TV courtroom dramas.
I’ll be going to watch my first hearings at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court next month. We all have a right to go to the magistrates’ court and if there were more people in there observing what’s going on, we might have a lot more faith in the system.
This blog was written by volunteer courtwatcher Vinod Aithal