A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned she was interested in going to the local Magistrates’ Court to see what goes on. I didn’t even know you could do this – but you can. Each of the courtrooms has a public gallery, and as long as you behave, you’re allowed to sit in and see justice being served.
Our local court sits from 10am, but someone I know who serves there as a magistrate advised us to get there for 10.30am – she said there are often delays at the start of the day, with witnesses failing to turn up, and papers needed to be checked. When we arrived, we had to walk through an airport-style scanner, and our bags were x-rayed. There is a reception desk, and I was told that’s the place to go first – to ask which of the court rooms is likely to be of most interest to the casual observer. There seemed to be quite a few court rooms in action, and they gave us the details of which ones were busiest that day.
We started in one of the smaller courtrooms, where the public gallery is simply a row of seats at the back of the room. Within a few minutes, it became clear to us that the defendants are made to sit there while they wait to be called up. So, when we moved on to the next court room, we sat a little farther down the row, putting a bit of space between us and them. During the afternoon, in a larger court, the public gallery was almost a separate room, separated from the rest of the room by a wall of glass. This made us feel a bit more secure, until things got a bit heated. The mother of a defendant, on hearing that he was going to be held in custody, started shouting and swearing and generally making a scene. Until she leapt up to press her face to the glass screen, she was sitting right behind us. The magistrate had her thrown out, then arrested and brought back in as a defendant. She was made to apologise and then allowed to leave – apparently, she could have been sent to prison for four weeks for behaving that way. Yikes.
We saw a cross-section of society there, but they were nearly all men. They were there for drink-driving, shoplifting, stealing motorbikes, assaulting police officers, and fighting. For the most part, things were conducted quickly and without any time being wasted – there were delays when translators were needed, or because certain witnesses had been unable (or unwilling) to attend. For most of the defendants, it was not their first time in front of a magistrate.
But for me, it was all new. I came away feeling satisfied that things seem to be conducted more or less as I would expect them to be, but disappointed to see just how busy the courts are – as you can see from this photo I snapped with my phone on the way in, it’s a big building, and if everyone behaved as they should, we wouldn’t need it. I was also a bit surprised by some of the fines and other punishments handed out – shoplifters in particular seem to get an easy ride, with little to deter them from having a go. The drink-drivers had their driving licences taken off them there and then, and the brawlers were given court dates and told they will face trial in the near future.
It was an interesting day.