In the past I have appeared in court twice as a defendant and once as a member of the public. Now, in the latter category, twice. More on that later. My experience of court is to feel at others' mercy—beholden to a system in which for the most part one is unfamiliar and totally subservient. My first experience (age 16) was in Norton (East Riding) Magistrates Court, charged with sounding the warning device on a stationary vehicle. Before sentencing, the beaks told me that I faced a fine of up to £25. I nearly wet myself. This was 1969! Then they gave me an unconditional discharge, perhaps reflecting the fact that the warning device in question was just a rubber bulb horn commonly fitted to pedal bikes at the time, but on this occasion acquitted atop the handlebar of a motorbike. Apparently the ‘arresting’ officer was given a right bollocking for wasting court time. But this whole business took three months to come to court, during which time I felt like The Fugitive.
My second appearance was in Hull Magistrates Court, circa 1991, for not paying the poll tax. Then you could have your day in court, and generally so long as you paid up afterwards, there was little penalty. I paid up. I was on the council at the time, and would face disbarment if I hadn’t paid. This appearance before the beaks was to be ironic, as we shall see.
My third attendance in court—Morley Magistrates in about 1996—was to provide moral support to Labour’s PPC in Leeds North East, Fabian Hamilton, who stood accused of being a director of a limited company which had failed to fulfil the legal requirement of displaying a sign on its registered premises of its limited status. The charge was brought to the beaks’ attention by his political opponents, and was about the most devastating thing they could think of. A small fine with costs was I recollect levied. It made no difference at the subsequent general election. It was 1997 after all.
I’m afraid there is no unifying narrative here, except to say that when you face the beaks, your fate really is in these strangers’ hands, and yes, perhaps the law should always be judged by strangers. Blind, so to speak (if mainly judged by middle to late middle aged white middle class magistrates). But things aren’t only judged in courtrooms. I mentioned my poll tax appearance. Ironically, when the Labour Party wanted to defenestrate Liz Davies who was about to be selected as Fabian Hamilton’s predecessor as PPC for Leeds North East, a member approached me for a suggestion of a question he could ask at a selection meeting which might discombobulate her. I said why not ask her if she had any skeletons in her cupboard? She said she had not. Then the Party, who didn’t really want this left-wing firebrand chosen, discovered (I think with the help of the Daily Mail) that she had been in court for non-poll tax payment. Since she didn’t to my knowledge go to prison, I assume she coughed up, just like me. Her poll tax court appearance was nevertheless deemed a ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ and the selection was re-run (just after a separate court judgement which ruled all-women shortlists illegal). As for me, I learnt a basic lesson in politics—how to live with ironies. I confess that living with ironies is not necessarily desirable. But so far as the Labour Party is concerned, we will soon discover how the leaked report into the internal anti-Corbyn faction of party staffers will surely become a report on the misdeeds of the whistleblowers who brought their behaviour to our attention. I wait and watch attentively to see how our new leader, well versed I assume in courtroom practice demonstrates a honed sense of legalistic irony on this one.
So now we come to my fourth attendance at a court hearing, albeit this time in virtual circumstances. This was the first procedural hearing of the contempt of court case against blogger Craig Murray. Apparently around 700 people listened in—rather more than you would get in a physical courtroom. It didn’t last very long and wasn’t in the least bit exciting. As Murray had pointed out in a blog, his indictment appeared to be incomplete and factually wrong. So the only thing that caught my eye (or should that be ear?) in this hearing was the explanation proffered by the prosecution, which was that the document ‘lost’ some content when it was converted from Word into a PDF. How likely is that? It may or may not prove interesting to see what the missing bits actually said. The unfortunate thing about a virtual hearing, where participants are presumably calling in remotely is that some of the speech gets garbled, or somebody accidentally leaves their ‘mute’ button on. Murray’s preference for a physical courtroom trial is justifiable. The next hearing is on the 7th July. No doubt Murray’s analysis of today’s proceedings will be posted on his website later today.