Pinstripes and paperwork: three weeks in the Courts

Laganside Courts on Oxford Street in Belfast

Laganside Courts on Oxford Street in Belfast

By Patrick Haugseng

Before some weeks ago, I’d never been in a courtroom. Most people haven’t. I had an idea of what to expect, of course, but only from cinema and television.

Golden Hollywood films like 12 Angry Men, Anatomy of a Murder and Inherit the Wind portray court proceedings as respectful, serious and intense with drama always present. This vision makes sense; these places do hear and decide on cases that can be incredibly dark and harrowing, after all.

The Waterfront Arena in Belfast sits opposite the Laganside courts. It’s a pretty new building; polished stone floors with huge walls made only of glass, flooding the hallways with bright, natural light and framing the young Titanic Quarter.

Like in all the great Hollywood films, these courts don’t deal with litigation or the like, but with crime.

They’re situated on two floors; the second and the fourth.

On the second floor, each morning for two hours, around a hundred people get the date of their trial pencilled in, in what’s called the Magistrates Proceedings. The 10:30 start for these proceedings is usually, however, a little optimistic as the proceedings frequently start late and usually run on. Up on the fourth floor, serious cases on murder, rape and assault are heard.

While the courtrooms on the fourth floor are much bigger than those on the second, they are essentially the same; a big purple wall at the front, behind the judge, and purple seats for the legal professionals, press and public (the judge gets a green seat).

The tables are all constructed with a particularly yellow wood and, behind the judge, amongst the purple, sit one or two frosted glass brick windows, depending on the particular courtroom. It’s basically the UK criminal justice system as envisioned by Premier Inn.

Away from the décor, however, the two courts are quite different. In the Magistrates Proceedings, the public gallery sits in complete silence, while the legal professionals sit in the middle of the room, behind their benches, loudly chatting and joking to one another across the room. They aren’t dressed in cloaks and wigs, just suits, mostly of the pinstripe variety.

You always notice a pinstripe suit. They’re so confident and eye catching they act like a peacock’s colourful tail-feathers, designed to alert you to their power and status. The captive audience, attending out of duty, doesn’t seem particularly impressed, however.

“Oh, that’s cool”, says one of the solicitors, talking to a colleague about home electronics. At the front, a court clerk says “All rise”. The whole room stands. The judge walks in and sits straight down, a despondent look on his face. Just another day.

Already the judge, solicitors and public prosecutors are organising and reorganising dates, attempting to get something achieved.

“Could we try and get a date? We’ve been trying for some time” the judge states wearily. Not long after, the issue of a lack of paperwork raises its head. “Where’s his record, please?” There is no record.

This is not uncommon. In another court, the judge chastised the solicitors for failing to include the required paperwork, threatening to bring in yet another form for them to routinely fill out. This limp threat was met with mild amusement. This had been going on for a whole year, the judge said.

The benches of the public prosecutors are heaving with papers and purple folders stacked into high columns, hurriedly opened, read and discarded. Solicitors who aren’t involved in any of the cases stroll in to see what’s happening in their domain and leave again, hands in pockets, with the same leisurely pace. The legalese flies over the heads of all but themselves during proceedings. And while all this is going on, a plethora of forms is being filled out.

The fourth floor is radically different. It’s quiet, measured and the legal professionals wear their wigs and robes. Whereas the bulk of the cases in the Magistrates Proceedings are petty theft, on the fourth floor the cases are much darker.

The first time I was on the fourth floor I watched a case where a step-father, living with the family, was accused of having sexually abused a 6 year old girl, on over 20 occasions, across several years. She was interviewed by the prosecution and defence via video link, about explicit details of the alleged ordeal.

The judge was patient and considerate, ensuring the child and the jury were given enough breaks and were well catered for. That said, even these courtrooms contain some scenes of chaos.

During the trial of two teenagers, it became known that the defence had failed not only to provide paperwork as part of their case, but that they were also unaware of what was involved in getting said paperwork and how long it would take to get. The defence was left standing alone and ignorant as the judge, the prosecution and a police expert all stood agreeing that it usually takes some time for this specific paperwork to make its way to court.

In this same case, after the jury was sworn in, the prosecution started to make his opening statement, about 40 minutes in length, which included the screening of a CCTV film of the incident, displayed on one of the many flat television screens littering the courtroom.

After the prosecution had spoken, the jury left and the legal arguments began. The judge, frustrated at the slow media player used to play the video, asked, “Why on earth are we using a piece of software that is free from the internet?” He continued, talking about “All this equipment”, referring to the latest technology surrounding him in the court and describes what is being run on it as, “Unfit for purpose.” It was rather like putting on a royal tea party complete with hand painted, porcelain cake stands, only to serve a scotch egg.

The media player in question is called ‘Real Player’. Anyone can download and use this software for free. To actually do so, however, is far from advisable as a quick Google search points out that it was declared the second worst ‘tech product’ of all time by PC World Magazine and continues to be the laughing stock of the online community.

What is striking is that any teenager, not a computer expert, but a teenager, could suggest a minimum of three free alternatives which would be far better, yet these courts continue to use RealPlayer.

The next day, the judge asked if photocopies of the photos being used in the case could be made saying, “It would be good if this had of been thought of beforehand”. The judge hadn’t even seen the photos.

A clerk rushed out to make copies, returning minutes later and inevitably interrupting proceedings.

The courtroom had changed in the hope of getting a better video player. The video was being played again.

The prosecution asks for the video to be taken back a bit. The clerk dutifully obliges. The video begins rewinding. This takes at least five minutes, during which time the courtroom is completely silent with nothing happening. “We can take it back frame by frame, that seems to be possible” says the judge. That is not a joke. The video was literally being rewound frame by frame.

In this system of chaos and inadequacy, feeling that the public participants lose out isn’t all that surprising. Imagine if you were put on trial; people are debating your future and liberties and you haven’t a clue what’s going on around you. They may as well be speaking Latin.

And it actually feels worse than that. In proceedings on the second floor, defendants are treated as mere commodities, as though they themselves belong in an evidence bag to be whipped out and discarded at the beck and call of a solicitor. It’s dehumanising. A judge in these proceedings once asked a defendant if he was aware of the risks of pleading ‘not guilty’. His response was: ‘I am now.’

On another occasion, a woman was sat with her adult son in the gallery. His case was being scheduled that day. It was their first time at the proceedings, but they didn’t seem perturbed by the experience, though they were grossly ill-informed of what was about to happen.

After the judge had walked in and sat down, cases were being scheduled at light speed. During the few minutes the son’s case was being decided, he stood up and sat down repeatedly, unsure of what to do. In no more than two minutes, the court had moved on to another case.

“That’s it? That’s it?” the son asked. The mother and son sit stunned, wondering if there’s something more. A few more cases are scheduled. They left.

The notion of opening up this system so that members of the public may sit in, observe and hold the courts system to account is rendered absurd by the completely incomprehensible proceedings the court engages in. Even defendants are scarcely involved in their own cases.

The legal professionals exist in their own world, entirely normal to them, but completely alien to everyone else. It’s a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party everyday at 10:30 on the second floor.

When justice seems routine and arbitrary, there must surely be a problem. While this is only a three week snapshot, it’s hard to get away from the sense that there are real issues that need to be dealt with. On the fourth floor, while judges consistently and admirably warn against excessive use of tax payer money in the courtrooms, they should at least be permitted video playing software that is fit for purpose. I imagine CCTV evidence is not too uncommon, after all.