The Bug House Files

For real courtroom drama, give me the Mags every time.

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“My client says the reason he was carrying a 6in knife about his person that day was because he had a can of peaches at home and had lost his can opener.”* 

Bore-athon: The live feed from the Court of Appeal was hardly riveting viewing.

Bore-athon: The live feed from the Court of Appeal was hardly riveting viewing.

Did you watch the inaugural televised broadcast from Court of Appeal the other day?

As courtroom drama goes, it was somewhat lacking in punch – unless the sight of David Cameron’s brother droning on about counterfeit coins turns you on, in which case can I also recommend BBC Parliament.

I’ve covered a lot of court cases over the years and the CoA coverage was pretty much par for the course. In my experience the grandness of the court is inversely proportional to its entertainment level.

This is especially true of Crown Court. Because it deals with murders, organised crime, phone hacking, and other “marquee” offences, Crown Court is perceived as being a dead cert source of juicy headlines. Similarly, whenever they are portrayed on TV, the courtrooms are always packed, hushed, and bristling with dramatic tension.

The reality, as any benighted press bench regular will confirm, is that most cases are grindingly mundane, especially in the provinces where big trials come round once in a blue moon. Instead there’s a lot of low-level fraud. Piddling drug offences. Drunken violence. An inordinate amount of time is spent dealing with adjournment applications or legal minutiae. For a case to go ahead and on time is a rarity.

In dramatic terms Crown Court is the hot date that always stands you up.

By contrast Magistrates court is a Jacuzzi full of Playboy bunnies. Here, amid Ellis Island-style grime and squalor, all human life can be found in an atmosphere of barely constrained anarchy. There is no pomp and ceremony on show, no robes and wigs, only peevish Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors reading out the facts of the case, weary duty solicitors defending the indefensible, and bamboozled amateur magistrates trying to take it all in.

Sometimes a police officer will take the stand and ask if he can “consult from his pocket book”. The official interpretation of events, delivered in a flat police monotone, is invariably hysterical.

“The suspect had glazed eyes, his speech was slurred and he smelled of alcohol. When asked his name, the suspect said ‘Your mother’s got two c**** and you’re one of them’.”*

For the accused, most of them up for public order offences, this is their X-Factor moment, a chance for them to play to the public gallery. Few resist the opportunity, because any offence requiring a sentence of longer than six months behind bars must be sent to the Crown Court and because the magistrates themselves – usually retired old buffers and elderly ladies with bouffant hair – strike absolutely no fear into them. They are there simply to rubber stamp the guidance provided by the clerk of the court, the Iago-like presence pouring poison into their ears from in front of the bench.

I have always thought TV has missed a trick by not installing cameras in Magistrates’ Court. OK, you’ll never see a major trial unfold – but compared to the dreary procedural bore-athon of the Court of Appeal, it would be absolute televisual dynamite

 * As overheard by the author, reporting from Newcastle Magistrates’ Court.

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Author: Jim Ford

I'm an author and journalist. "The Bug House" series of Tyneside-based crime novels is published in 2014

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