I wonder if two toddlers will remember the time they had to spend all day in a north London court building. They were in the waiting area when I got through security relatively quickly at 9.45am. Watching them play ‘catch’ with their mum and baby sister at lunchtime made me smile. They were still there mid-afternoon. With £1bn to modernise the system, it is a shame the government couldn’t spend a few pounds on an activity table to entertain the little ones while someone navigates the justice system.
Still, if they are going to spend a whole day in court, better to wait on the ground floor, which appears to have been done up recently, than the second floor. As I walk past parties waiting to be called, I do a double-take at what the sign tells me is the ‘advocates’ room’: a grey, cold and worryingly unlocked chamber that is smaller than my bathroom.
I head to court 2, where an unrepresented defendant is in the dock. ‘Is this an actual hearing?’ she asks the district judge, who informs her that it would have been her solicitor’s job to tell her what was going on. The judge explains the consequences if her case goes to trial and she’s found guilty. If she says she’s not guilty, she must fill out a form detailing why she says she’s not guilty. 'Would you like to see the duty solicitor?’ the judge asks. ‘Yes please,’ the woman replies.
Back in the waiting area, a solicitor points towards a vending machine when I ask if there is a cafe. A man starts shouting and swearing. ‘He told me to go downstairs, now he’s told me to go upstairs,’ he says to his friend. ‘I would break his nose easily,’ he adds, pointing to a security guard, who doesn’t react. The solicitor he’s looking for approaches him. Within seconds, the defendant has gone from threatening to punch a security guard to laughing, after the solicitor apologises for mistaking his friend for his mother. ‘We see people kicking off every day,’ one of the duty solicitors tells me.
Another court has two people in the public gallery. It turns out they are the ones who will be standing in the dock. One defendant pleads guilty. She will be sentenced at Crown court. She is free to go but told to go to the customer services desk to collect her bail sheet before she leaves. She returns a few minutes later when her solicitor informs the judge that the customer services desk is closed. The bail sheet will have to be posted.
Another court and there are not enough seats for everyone in the public gallery. The atmosphere feels increasingly tense. I dread to think what might have happened if rival gang members were forced to stand alongside each other in a public gallery with ‘F*** the system’ scratched on the wall.
After ‘lunch’, I’m in a courtroom on the ground floor. The difference is remarkable. No glass partition dividing the public gallery and the rest of the court. A hearing is listed for 2pm, but the defendant, who is in custody, is not here. It takes about 45 minutes to work out what is going on. The magistrates decide to hear the case in his absence. The main witness is told by the prosecution to raise her voice and talk directly to the bench, which will help the legal adviser who will be typing what she says. The case is adjourned for when the defendant can appear via videolink.
It is 4.30pm. I head back upstairs to find that one court remains open, where magistrates are dealing with British Transport Police cases. I appear to have startled one of the panel when I enter the public gallery. I guess they weren’t expecting an audience.
Once they have completed their list, I walk downstairs, relieved to see that the three siblings have left. I hope their next day trip is more fun.