‘Barristers’ speeches vanish quicker than Chinese dinners, and even the greatest victory in court rarely survives longer than the next Sunday’s papers.’ So wrote John Mortimer in Rumpole of the Bailey. While no doubt true, a barrister delivering a well-honed speech is still something to behold. They are the last defenders of a rhetorical tradition that our politicians have all but given up on. Many QCs still use Cicero’s principles of oratory: to teach, to entertain and to move.
The public are allowed to watch almost any court hearing, but few ever do. As a court reporter, I have been struck by how empty the public galleries tend to be, beyond a few elderly men who regularly turn up. (These lone gentlemen, some of whom still attend in shirt and tie, sit quietly at the back and often provide helpful tip-offs to lost reporters.)
There are exceptions such as the Old Bailey, which still draws significant crowds. When Tommy Robinson appeared there in July, the public gallery was heaving. Occasionally a group of sixth-formers or law students will awkwardly shuffle in, midway through a hearing. But most criminal trials go entirely unscrutinised by the public.
It is a shame because the British courts often provide unparalleled entertainment. So how does one go about visiting? You are perfectly entitled to walk in off the street and quietly enter almost any hearing. There is no need to tell the clerks who you are. The listings for your local crown court can be found at courtserve.net, which publishes a free-to-access copy of the following day’s hearings. (Magistrates’ courts, where lesser crimes are dealt with, have no such equivalent available to the public beyond a list of that day’s cases pinned up somewhere near the entrance.)
If you’d like to watch a trial at the Old Bailey, old-bailey.com publishes that day’s most interesting hearings. Unlike every other crown court, the public gallery at the Old Bailey is separated off from the rest of the building. For security reasons, punters are also banned from bringing mobile phones. Luckily, a nearby travel agent called Capable Travel will look after them for a couple of quid.
For novices, sentencing hearings are a good place to start. The prosecutor will outline the case, the defence barrister will scrape together any mitigating personal circumstances and then the judge will blast the defendant for their corrupted morals. This precedes the climactic declaration: ‘Joseph Bloggs, stand up please. I sentence you to life imprisonment with a minimum of 15 years in prison.’ One of two things will now happen. The defendant, stunned by the force of society’s retribution, will quietly plod away. Less frequently, they will collapse in a pool of wretched tears or shout petty insults at the bench (‘Suck your mum!’ is a personal favourite). If it’s a murder trial, it is not unusual for the victim’s family to hurl abuse at the miserable killer.
All this sounds rather flippant, but gallows humour is the only way to deal with the heartbreaking reality of some cases. People’s lives are exposed before a room of strangers. We hear about the depraved and irrational beliefs that led them to their outrageous decisions. It is humanity stripped bare. But watching our criminal justice system in action is still uniquely compelling.