Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Demand a New Normal - Sort Out England's Courts

When I started as a barrister, in the 21st century, I along with the other newbies received a pep talk on dress and appearance. Except this wasn't a pep talk it was the 10 Commandments. Highlights were that pupil barristers were only allowed to wear white shirts, if we wore trousers with belt loops we had to wear a belt (that is if we HAD to wear trousers with belt loops), waistcoats were essential with double breasted jackets a just about tolerable alternative and, most firmly of all, we were never, ever, ever to be seen public without the collar on our shirt.

Barristers wear expensive and uncomfortable starched wing collars in court that attach to their shirts with collar studs. In the robing room off comes soft collar and tie and on goes the stiff collar and bands. If you ever see a man on public transport wearing a suit and shirt with no collar that is a barrister (although one that would have been drummed out of my first chambers). When I started there were still barristers that wore stiff collars even out of court. These cost at least £2.50 to have specially laundered and starched and should be changed every day. Over a tenner a week just to keep your collar clean.

Appearance mattered because justice is a solemn business, it's why we have clung onto the wigs all these years. Appearance also matters because as a barrister you are your shop window. When the client sees you, when the judge sees you, when the jury sees you they are all making a judgement. Can I rely on this person?

Justice in lockdown is basically on ice. The planes are still taking off but with no jury trials taking place there is nowhere for them to land. Instead there are Skype for Business hearings in which the judges are still in full court dress but, mercifully, advocates are required only to be suited rather than sitting in their kitchen in their wig. It's a month since I went to court and a month since I saw a court building.

My memories are not happy ones. The Crown Courts of England & Wales, certainly the ones I frequent, are in an absolutely shocking state. Leaking roofs, cracked tiles, worn linoleum, collapsing seating, stained carpeting, deranged central heating, sadistic air conditioning, out of order lifts, broken toilets. The list of their deficiencies goes on and on and on.

After witnessing their degradation over years and years I have, to a wearying extent, become inured to how shameful it all looks. However, I often wonder how it must look to jurors, witnesses and even the defendants seeing it all for the first time. If this is what the building looks like what on earth can be the quality of what takes place inside it?

If the last few weeks have taught us anything it is that without proper funding the National Health Service can not, in fact, provide a service. To say that shortcomings brought about by years of austerity have been laid bare is like saying a streaker at Twickenham is a little underdressed. This is just as true for the Criminal Justice System. 

When jury trials eventually resume even the most hardened barrister will be seeing these buildings with fresh eyes and it will not be a welcome remembrance. We have to ask ourselves, when it comes to English justice, whether people should be judging a book by its cover.