Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Phone hacking, manslaughter or murder, madam? : Watch a court case at the Old Bailey

This was on my list of things to do for flippin’ years. I found out that you could visit the Old Bailey when my eldest was seven but that the minimum age was 14. So, after a seven-year wait, me and the boy were bulging with anticipation.
There are 18 courts there, all open to the public for free, with the most exciting things usually going on in Courts 1, 2 and 3. A bit like Wimbledon (without the happy vibe and the strawberries).
by Pierre Terre/CC-BY-SA-2.0
As you’d expect, it’s a grand looking building, but the entrance for punters like us turned out to be anything but grand: round the back, down a dark, narrow alley called Warwick Passage, through an uninviting door and up some ugly steps. The security officer immediately informed us that no mobile phones, cameras, food, drink, blah, blah, blah were allowed in – basically, all the items you’d bring on a day out in London. Oh? But, he told us, there were several shops round the corner who were happy to look after the bags of Old Bailey visitors for a small fee. (I bet they were.)

One rucksack and £3 lighter, we were back again. “Up you go then,” he said. “Stop at any floor you like and someone will tell you what’s on today.” Great! It sounded like a multiplex cinema.

We headed for the top and were approached by a smiley security lady (or usher?).
“Come to watch anything particular?” she asked. 
“Well, anything really,” I said awkwardly, feeling suddenly voyeuristic. “Erm … what is there?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, ultra cheerfully, like a waitress reeling off the Specials of the Day. “In Court 11 we have phone hacking, in Court 12 there’s murder, and in Court 13 today, it’s manslaughter.” 
Me and the boy exchanged glances. I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing. 
“Court 12?” said my son tentatively, deliberately avoiding the M word. Bloodthirsty? No, not us.
by Josh/CC-BY-2.0
“Murder, is it?” she said, nodding approvingly, like we’d chosen the best dish on the menu. “Follow me.” Just two little rules though, she told us: 
1. We must stay in there for at least 30 minutes (no crazy court-hopping). 
2. Strictly no talking, and we mustn’t even discuss the case with each other until we’d completely left the building.

The first ten minutes in the court room were intense: Our eyes and brains went into overdrive as we took in the layout of the court room and tried to work out who was who. Currently in the witness box, a scientist was being questioned about the results of DNA swabs.
by Rowlandson & Pugin/CC-PD-Mark/PD old/PD1923
Gradually, our minds pieced together a simple ‘Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick’ overview of the case. It wasn't pretty: kitchen, blood stains, butcher’s knife, tea towel, baseball bat.

It was incredibly absorbing. Half of me was trying to make sense of the tangle of technical information I was hearing, while the other half was flooded with very basic thoughts, like: Don’t the lawyers look silly in those wigs. Is the jury bored (didn’t that one just stifle a yawn)? Are they clever enough to follow it all? Is it right that those 12 people should decide whether this man is guilty or not? What is the accused making of all this complex talk and analysis? After all, he simply knows – he KNOWS – whether he did it or not. But above all, I felt the weight and austerity of the place: This was a room where big decisions were made. And we were in it.

After an hour or so, my stomach was rumbling and I was ready for lunch, but my son wouldn’t budge. “Not yet,” he mouthed.

When we finally came out, he was buzzing.“Can we go in the phone hacking case now?” he asked, but I was just too hungry. (Though later, when we got home, I discovered it had been THE big news story of the day.) 

A couple of weeks afterwards, out of the blue, my son (who has been dead set on becoming a pilot since he was two) announced, “I quite fancy doing law you know … it was just … I dunno … being in that court room.”
by S.P. Andrew Ltd/CC-BY-SA-3.0
See here for The Old Bailey's opening times, travel information, etc.

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