A letter arrives with the dread word “SUMMONS” blazing on garish, John Waters pink paper, screaming its way past the junk and the bills, demanding attention. You scan the key paragraphs, fill in the slip to confirm that you do not fall into the limited disqualified demographics and set aside the advice leaflets that nobody ever reads.
A few weeks later, you make your way to the heart of The City, to the site of Newgate, where crowds would gather to see public hangings (until as late as 1868). Once you locate an entrance door that defines the word “unprepossessing”, clear airport security, prove your identity and register, you ascend to a fifth floor room with which you become very familiar. Part airport terminal, part polytechnic refectory, you find a seat amongst the curiously long rows and stare at a lost world from the time before the franchising / branding / management of such spaces became a globalised, homogenous “customer experience”.
Notices are blutacked on walls, the words formed by letters individually printed, one per sheet of A4, to make up words like “E N Q U I R I E S”. A canteen area offers coffee from a machine, a croissant or two – and I do mean one or two – and an almost heroically limited range of sandwiches, as if it were still 1974. Later, a hot lunch is offered, “choice” limited to three dishes, my old school dinners inevitably brought to mind. It’s not the fault of the staff who multi-task in the way of things today, serving food, taking the money, clearing plates – but quite why a Starbucks or a Pret-a-Manger cannot deliver something a little less 70s I do not know. (One day, I did glimpse the kitchen staff arranging a tray of rather attractive looking asparagus, lightly buttered, but I suspect they were delivered to the Barristers Mess on the other side of the fifth floor).
While court announcements (which we have been told to ignore) blare on the (excellent) PA, staff dedicated to managing juries use a local system that cracks and hisses but, just about, gets the job done. Indeed, that is but one example of the staff’s patience, professionalism and bloody good humour in the face of an infrastructure that shows the impact of The Years Of Austerity – perhaps best exemplified in seats the PVC upholstery of which is held together with gaffer tape (you really have to see that to believe it). For all that, the security guards, the court ushers, the canteen workers, indeed all the staff I met, were a credit to the country.
Though it was barely an hour earlier, the information imparted in the induction is entirely forgotten as you file into a court for selection and avoid eye contact with the defendants. I was one of forty or so candidates for a trial we were told would last up to eight weeks, news that caused an invisible, but perceptible, frisson of excitement to pass through our number. Names were called out and we squeezed past the desks, up to the judge for a whispered conversation and then, more often than not, were recused due to family obligations, holidays booked, hospital appointments. Reasons for standing down did not need to be substantial, but they did need to be real and, after an hour or so of this palaver, we were whittled to 12 + two reserves that soon became just 12 – charged with being a just 12 after swearing in.
Court is assembled every day before the jury enters (and we’re first out come 4.00pm too), so you can’t help but wonder if there’s a Toy Story thing going on with dancing and singing (perhaps a Rocky Horror style party with the Judge as Frank N. Furter and the usher as Riff Raff) that stops the moment we walk in and starts again the moment we leave. It is an eerie experience to file out of the court each afternoon and see it, identical in all details, the next morning. Such fantasies have plenty of time to brew in the long hours of argument.
While the Judge sits on the biggest chair and gets the coolest wig and lots of “Milords” and bows from the barristers and police officers (and the more experienced witnesses, who know the bureaucratic ropes in the same way that Fletch knew them at HMP Slade in Porridge), we sit in two rows like the worst Blankety Blank panel ever. But the Judge is very solicitous of our needs, eying us for signs of fatigue (and there, ahem, a few such in the post lunch watches) and ensuring we can hear the arguments and the words of the more reticent witnesses. There’s an occasional glint in the eye and cutting aside from the Bench that allows just enough humour into what is often a grim, occasionally tragic, show – but those lighter moments serve as an inoculation against a sometimes strong urge to shout or laugh loudly, Tourettishly, as the hours drift by.
There’s jargon of course – there is in any workplace – but it’s genuinely limited as far as we are concerned since explaining matters to the jury is a priority for pretty much everyone involved. There’s a “My Friend” or two in court naturally, and notices around the building are splattered with acronyms, but my favourite bit of inside talk was the Judge’s reference to chats “downstairs”. Yes, you guessed it – “downstairs” refers to the custody cells. When things got a bit heated amongst the QCs – and they did – we were ushered out of court since there were points of law to decide (matters that you wouldn’t want to expose to your wife or servants to I suppose). On return, things were noticeably less fraught, and the ship sailed on.
One of my few talents is an ability to concentrate – six hour adaptations of Shakespeare in Dutch and three hour subtitled Russian epics I can lap up – but one’s mind inevitably wanders a little to the personalities on show and, for all the talk that wigs and gowns divest the actors of their individuality, the people really matter and we get to know their habits and foibles quite well. Because of severe restrictions on what we can talk about with regard to the evidence – every day is akin to the interval on a Press Night with its omertà on discussing the play – so, in the long periods of waiting, we default to talking about the cast.
The avuncular judge gets a good press from us – firm but fair always goes down well. Counsels get mixed reviews, the inevitable verbal and physical ticks revealed over the hours in court provoking amusement and annoyance in roughly equal measures. There’s fun to be had observing the more spiky exchanges that emerge when briefs run cut-throat defences, attacking each other as much as the witnesses. With the stakes as high as they were, the emotional temperature could rise swiftly and unexpectedly, the posh boys getting stuck in for their clients. Some of us enjoyed analysing the relationships between barristers and their hardworking, but usually silent, juniors too – and speculating on how much time it took to tousle out the hair, just so, from beneath the horsehair wig.
That said, the real stars of the show were the witnesses, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… or so their oaths obliged them. What a cross-section of humanity were paraded before us! There’s an ultra-professional pathologist, seemingly flitting from one court to another, graphics in hand, his Estuary English accent tempered by education and erudition – a wonderful turn. There were the nervous, the frightened, the hungover, the confident, the aggressive, the submissive, the meek, the bold and the utterly compelling. That last descriptor fitted a pair of brothers, key players in the case, with pasts that might be charitably described as “chequered” (even they admitted that) but the kind of presence that is the product of a charisma given to few. It was plain to me how they could easily have made successes of many walks of life – The Bar for one – but the dice had rolled differently. That said, if Guy Ritchie is pitching another one of his Lock, Stock follow ups, casting directors need not look too far beyond this pair of likely lads.
We’re not always in court of course, and not always in the waiting room. The halls and corridors of The Old Bailey form a warren of ill-described rooms and spaces, one ideal for parkour boys to glide, vault and slide through – indeed, a film of such an escapade would open up the whole stuffy environment beautifully, humanising the harsh wooden panelling and hard marble floors that turn the brightest of summer days an autumnal grey. Tall people are everywhere – some police of course – but I’ve never seen so many stiletto heels this side of a production of Chicago. Must be a thing.
Outside court, I mused on how things had changed, yet had not, as a group of builders, carapaced with hi-vis jackets and lots of training, carefully avoided flirting with a group of mollish women, all push-up bras, lycra-based fabrics and spiky shoes, waiting for their men to complete evidence inside or be released on bail from the dock no doubt. The jury box can be a grim and silent space too, so I enjoyed the good humour and smiles at Coco di Mama across the road, whose wonderful staff stood me a valedictory cappuccino on the house when I told them it was my last day.
I have a letter now that offers a free pass for ten years if I am called to serve again, but I doubt that I’ll use that er… Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not only is jury service an important civic duty, it’s also a longstanding check and balance on the powers of the three pillars of government: Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. And, if court proceedings aren’t quite as packed with razzmatazz as they were in medieval times when The Assizes would come to town trailed by jesters, jugglers and pickpockets, there’s still plenty enough to entertain and inform. But one should never forget – and it never was, not even for a minute of my eight weeks or so as a juror – that lives are being weighed in our hands and that justice, expensive, slow and cumbersome as it is, is very much worth the whole crazy show.
A bientôt, rather than farewell, to the Lady with the Sword and the Scales.