Roger writing the LAWmag
06
Mar 2008

Old Bailey

The beautiful, ornate main door was sealed with an ugly black iron gate.

Then, the sign did not even refer to "Old Bailey's" but, instead, an innocuous "Central Criminal Court".

Old Bailey old gateBut this was the place as the gorgeous statute of Lady Justice, with her golden trim glistening high above in the bright March sun proved beyond a reasonable doubt, as the City of London describes it:

"... the most famous criminal court in the world. The original Old Bailey courthouse was built in 1539 but the history of the court goes back much further as the site had been occupied by the notorious Newgate (jail) from medieval times."

The present building enjoyed it's centenary last year, having been built in 1907.

My daughter is denied entrance because she's three months short of 14, the age limit for public access.

I hurriedly set her up across the street with £10 at the Old Bailey's Cafe hoping she'll be safe from the rifraff London's major criminal Courthouse must attract.

Then I'm off and with a hop to my step, it is 12:30 PM when I push the revolving door and land in the bulletproof foyer with a row of security guards watching my every move.

None beckons me. Their gaze is unfriendly and surly, no doubt about it.

"What is it?", one says.

"I'm just hear to courthwatch," I reply.

"Come back at 2," is the curt reply, without any eye contact. Since I'm the only one in the foyer, I assume this shining example of public service is for my benefit.

Luckily, I know a brush off when I see one. After some hassling, they confirm that there may indeed be some action but I have to use the public gallery entrance around the corner. Without any goodbye from me, I'm out and I jump up the stairs. At the top of the first set of stairs, I'm stopped by another security guard.

Again those glorious British words of public service welcome: "what is it?"

"There's nothing. Come back at 2."

Finally my barrister training comes into play. I know how the roster system works and that British courts sit as of 10:30 AM but can go to 1 PM. I push gently and he admits that there may be some action in one of the court rooms but I can't come in with my digital camera even if I keep it off; it simply is not allowed in the Courthouse. 

So I race back to Old Bailey's Cafe and drop it off with my daughter and race back.

Finally, at about 12:40 PM, I'm ushered into a courtroom on the top floor, Justice Gooden presiding over a jury trial on a robbery charge.

The loud, proud and large emblem on the wall is reassuring and one I'm very familiar with: honi soit qui mal y pense.

Punch cartoon re legal wigBut the wigs! Waste the wigs, please!

The judge, the clerk and the lawyers all wear these dirty white wigs which have a distinct plastic or polyester sheen to them. The clerk is African and one of the barristers East Indian and the contrast is greater on their skin. But nothing should be taken from the Honourable Mr. Justice Gooden who it must be said, regrettably, and with the greatest of respect, looks positively dorky. It takes a tremendous amount of self-control to not laugh out loud. The history of the building and what it means to the common law takes over and a sense of reverence finally ekes out but it's not easy ignoring those useless and elitist relics of the middle ages which add nothing but can only keep the law esconsed remote from the common people.

The irony of it all was that wigs were resisted by the judges at first as the judge website Judiciary of England and Wales (judiciary.gov.uk) explains:

"Wigs made their first appearance in a courtroom purely and simply because that’s what was being worn outside it; the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) made wigs essential wear for polite society. The judiciary, however, took some time to convince; portraits of judges from the early 1680s still show judges defiantly sporting their own natural hair, and wigs do not seem to have been adopted wholesale until 1685."

The law is notoriously conservative, still dishing out QCs and at least in England, still sporting the wig. My reaction of distaste towards the esoteric and useless relic is only barely beaten back by my reverence for the Court.

I feel like the little boy watching the emperor who has no clothes except I've not the courage to say out loud: "Gentlemen, for the sake of the law, take those silly looking wigs off, please!" A couple of days in a London jail for contempt just doesn't fit in my or my daughter's schedule right now.

The alleged victim is on the stand. I can't see her because of a screen, which is odd. In Canada, we would not normally use that except for children witnesses. She explains that the two black women in the accused area assaulted her, pulled her around by the hair and stole her cellphone. All the lawyers (and the judge) have the same big brown criminal law books, with the words Archibald 2007 on their covers.

The 12 jurors, from a young blonde female, about 25, to two older males, both about 55, watch with varying degrees of interest. The accused seem poorly briefed by their lawyers as they visibly react to the witness' testimony.

The prosecutor, a big man, looking funny just because of the wig, appears scruffy with his gown hanging over his shoulders stopped from falling only by his elbows. He spaces his questions out, watching for when the judge is busy writing or reading his code book and he is tentative at times. But the witness tells her story, as Lady Justice on the top of the courthouse dome holds her sword and scales of justice aloft in the chilly March breeze.

He's done by 12:50 and the defense counsel stands.

He's East Indian but sports a nice deep voice and rich British accent. He's a much smaller man but caries himself better.

Again, it's hard to get over the wig but I'm the only one bothered by it. He asks the witness what she drank that night. Two Smirnoff Ice (that's not bad; strawberry is my favourite) and two double scotches with Coke. Now that's a lot of liquor.

"I suggest to you, you were drunk," politely admonishes the barrister.

"I was not," replies the mystery female witness.

"I suggest to you that you went up to Keisha and told her to stop 'fucking my man'".

Old Bailey Lady JusticeNo one reacts to the swear word. This is Old Bailey after all.

Except for the two accused. They grab each other and giggle together in triumph not realizing that their reaction is hurting their case in the minds of the jury and judge.

"No sir," replies the witness.

"I suggest to you that you asked Krish to 'rock it out'; that you wanted to fight with her."

"No sir."

With the battle lines drawn, the judge, not so venerable-looking (did I mention the wig) but with a deep and pleasant voice, suggested a break to 2:05 and to the witness, that she's not to discuss her evidence with anybody.

Then he excused the witness, then the jury, and then a few housekeeping matters with the clerk, especially to make sure that the accused would not have lunch in the same eating place as the witness/alleged victim.

We all rose and instantly upon the judge leaving the courtroom, I heard a voice behind me: "sir, we have to lock up now.

Back at Old Bailey (the restaurant), I order a chicken sandwich and hope that there is not a publication ban on the case. If I am in contempt, it will be hard to check my mirth in the presence of so many plastic-looking wigs.

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