The Old Bailey

This past week, while I didn’t have a reliable internet connection I wrote down some thoughts and observations from the day I left Houston and my first week in London. There’s a few days worth, so I’ll post them here over the next couple of days.

2007-09-27 – Thursday

Today was more legal nerd stuff. We were to meet at 10:30 a.m. and tour the Old Bailey (check out http://www.old-bailey.com/). Our tour guide was a former newspaper reporter who gave a short talk about the history of the Old Bailey that was suitably gory. The current courts building, which is just over 100 years old, is built on a site that has been a prison and place for executions for centuries. Some of the old stories about the prison were pretty bad, from the hangmen who were less than diligent about their jobs, so that sometimes you didn’t die for 20 or 30 minutes to the women prisoners who had to prostitute themselves for food because you had to rely on friends and neighbors to get fed while on the inside. He said there were at least two occasions where a man hung for 45 minutes without dying and since that was the period of time proscribed by the law that he was let down and pardoned. Prostitutes, pets and the plague were rampant in the prison and on one instance, the mayor and several judges caught a disease and died simply from visiting the prison on a day when cases were being heard.

We were supposed to watch a trial at the Old Bailey in the morning, but it was a fairly slow day, case-wise, so we trooped back down to the Royal Courts of Justice, where we visited yesterday, to find some cases going on. I got lucky and was one of about 10 students that managed to squeeze into a case between a school governor and the Education secretary or something. Basically, the government wanted to show Algore’s movie about global warming to every kid in the UK and this school principal objected to the idea and sued to stop it. So I got to listen for about 2 hours while the judge and the two advocates discussed whether or not the movie violated UK law about pushing politics in the schools. Very interesting.

Then after a bite at a super-crowded McD’s on Fleet Street, I wandered back down to the Old Bailey and managed to sit in on an afternoon murder trial. The prosecution examined a couple of witnesses, the son and ex-lover of the victim and read in some other testimony. Nothing too exciting, but it sounded like a sad case.

Both courtrooms were really amazing to look at. You can’t take pictures in either of them unfortunately. I’m poor at visual descriptions, but here goes.

At the Royal Court of Justice, we were in one of several many courtrooms on the first floor (which is the second floor because they call the first floor the Ground Floor). I don’t think this was any kind of special courtroom, but still very cool. First of all, the ceiling was quite high, at least 30 feet, and cathedral shaped at the top, with a couple of small windows on each side. I’d estimate it was about 30 feet long from back to front and 20 feet wide. The bench was raised at the back of the room and it was surrounded on the back and halfway down each side by wooden shelves filled with what look like reporters from floor to ceiling. The bench covered almost the entire back of the room, with places for three judges and on the left side there was a box for a witness. No jury box in this courtroom. The tables for the solicitors were up front and behind them about 4 rows of seating, which went up slightly, stadium style. Very small overall. I was sitting in the back row, and was only about 25 feet or so from the judge. The room itself felt like it was a small church chapel that had a courtroom dropped into it. The walls were some kind of smooth stone, but about halfway up all around was wood paneling with lots of fancy woodwork on top, with the walls ascending above it.

The Old Bailey, Court Room #1 where I saw the trial in the afternoon is often called the quintessential British courtroom. Mostly criminal trials are held here. My perspective was from a balcony (67 steps up) on the right side of the room, elevated above the room. The balcony ran the entire right side of the wall, with about 3 or 4 rows of old wooden benches with high backs. There were 2 benches on each row, with a center aisle and they were seated at a steep pitch, so the steps between each row were quite high. Also the judge did not want the people in the front row of the balcony leaning their elbows on the railing, or so I was told by the nice security guard.

The rest of the room was basically square, and fairly large. The roof of the room was a big circular skylight, somewhat opaque that was almost as big as the entire room. On each side, there were plaster arches that went from corner to corner and were several feet wide. Except for the wall where the balcony was located, the other walls were blank. From the bottom of the arches to the ground the walls were paneled in wood.

Looking down from the balcony, to my right was the bench, with room for several judges, but today only one judge sitting in a big chair in the center, with a court reporter at his far right. In front of the bench, slightly lower was table with a couple of seats for the clerks, one of whom kept tap-tap-tapping on a Dell keyboard the entire time and was really distracting. It didn’t help that the clerk was wearing a robe and wig as well and looked like a moron.

Directly below me, at floor level were one or more rows of seats for observers, at right angles to the judge’s bench. Moving toward the center of the room, still at right angles to the bench were two rows of tables for the solicitors. They weren’t exactly tables, more like built-in furniture and I think the front row may have even had fold-down seats that kept whacking shut when the barristers stood to speak.  If I was one of the barristers, I would have held the seat down so it closed quietly. They sat just a few feet apart from each other, with the prosecutor closest to the judge.

At the center of the room were two long tables, still at right angles to the bench. There was a fax machine and some other stuff there and a lady who was sort of the court baliff sat there and brought in witnesses and got water for them and stuff. She also took the witness’ oaths before they testified.

Further beyond the tables, on the opposite wall was the jury box, who sat facing the balcony. To their left, was the witness box, which was a curious little three sided stand, with walls about 3 feet high and a little structure like a roof, but open, so everyone can see the witness.

The defendant sat in a raised area the faced the judge, just a few feet beyond the end of the tables in the center of the room, just beyond and to the left of the solicitors. The dock was a odd business, somewhat irregularly shaped but generally square. It was raised, with walls that came about halfway up, and clear glass several feet high around the top. The defendant sat on one of two chairs near the front of the dock, closest to the judge. There was a little bit of open space, and behind him and to the right, a few chairs where a woman sat, who was apparently some sort of guard. Behind those chairs were stairs that apparently descended to the bowels of the Old Bailey.

Behind the dock, to my left from the balcony were several more rows of benches that filled the width of the room for more important observers.

All the solicitors were wearing wigs and gowns, as well as the judges. They usually referred to the judge as “Your Lordship” or “my Lord”. When they referred to each other they would say “my learned friend”.

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One Response

  1. […] Show Must Go On In a follow-up to the hearing I watched last Thursday the Daily Mail reports that Algore’s movie can be shown in England’s public schools, […]

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