I was at Edinburgh Sheriff Court for a morning recently and I heard just one case. This wasn't because of any legal complexities, requiring hours of heated debate, stretching beyond lunch. When I say 'heard', I mean that literally. It was the only case I could actually hear.
It had been years since I was in court, as a trainee journalist at Harlow Magistrates Court in the mid-70s. In those days, there were seats specifically for the press, from where, I recall, you could see and certainly hear the entire proceedings. After Harlow, I went down the trade press route, rather than joining a local paper. But I would certainly read the press court stories in the weekly of whichever town we were living in, so I know that journalists attended regularly, and cases were fully reported.
It would appear that is no longer the case. There was no-one else writing notes in the three courts I covered. There were no journalists. There were no seats reserved for the press. I asked the policeman on duty where I should sit and he pointed to the few – largely empty – rows of seats, where the family members and supporters of those appearing before the sheriff were anxiously waiting. I very much doubted whether they heard anything either.
The ambience within each of the courts is pleasant, relaxed. The rooms, wood-panelled, are very warm, the cinema-style seating is surprisingly comfy. If only the lighting was a little less bright, it would be a perfect place to have a wee nap. Certainly you would never be disturbed by the muted mutterings at the other end of the room. But, hey, surely the mutterings are meant to be heard? These are the solicitors, prosecuting and defending, the clerk of court and, most importantly, the sheriff. Yet the conversation between them is exactly that – between them. Backs, impressively black-gowned, are firmly turned away from those of us assembled in the public area, heads are lowered, the exchanges are quick and low – and we haven't got a clue what is going on.
I always understood the premise of open courts was that they were to allow justice to be seen to be done. It has to be heard too. But how can this be achieved when the clandestine coven in charge of proceedings blatantly exclude those of us attempting to witness the execution of justice?
As I sat there, in my little fog of non-comprehension, names were called (I could hear these: the policeman on duty had a delivery of thespian intensity) and then, a man or woman would enter the dock, sometimes in handcuffs, mostly not, and the sotto-voce business would take place. I could scarcely hear – except on that one occasion – what the accused was meant to have done, but lots of files were shuffled, people stood and sat after conferring with the sheriff, and the accused was dismissed, usually within a couple of minutes. It was a veritable conveyor belt of judicial business.
The odd phrase slipped into my hearing range – clearly someone had forgotten the rules of keeping conversation below the radar of the public. We're waiting for a social work report, or a psychiatric assessment, or a medical review, or for disclosure, the solicitors told the sheriff. So, why, if they knew they would not be able to proceed without these important documents, did they drag a succession of people in for a two-second appearance and yet another adjournment? Why couldn't they telephone, or email each other – still waiting for a report, I'm afraid, so cross Joe Bloggs off Tuesday's list – and allow Joe Bloggs a lie-in? What purpose did bringing them into court serve? In these days of instant technological communication why not use it? It seemed arcane, and a desperate waste of time.
And then there were the no-shows. Lots of them. The name of the next accused would be whispered and the policeman (as well as having the voice of an actor, he clearly had the hearing of a super-hero – but then, he also had a list) would go out into the waiting area and bellow. We would wait, expectantly, and in vain. Name after name. Non-appearance after non-appearance. I was intrigued. What did this mean? Would the cops be round at his last known address to strong-arm him into submission, bundle him into a black maria and drag him, screaming his innocence, into the court room? Hardly. There was a little collective shrug of the gowned shoulders and we moved on.
But how much does this cost? If Joe Bloggs was one of the 270 names on that day's list of miscreants due to attend Edinburgh Sheriff Court, surely it must mean he had a case against him to answer. Did it simply not matter that he didn't attend? Would he be put back on the list? Would he attend next time? Or is an appearance before the sheriff such a trifling event that you can get away with never showing up? Perhaps your mum could send a note.
I come back to the cost. We are constantly – and rightly – told that we should cancel GP and hospital appointments if we no longer need them as each missed appointment has a financial cost, and the time could have been offered to another patient. Towards the end of last year, Sheriff Gordon Liddle said that his Edinburgh court was 'bursting at the seams,' as he launched an unprecedented attack from the bench after being told that cases from outwith Edinburgh were being sent to his court. The Scottish Government has closed and is closing a number of sheriff and other courts in a bid to save money. Sheriff Liddle demanded to know why cases from West Lothian were being brought to his court, which was already 'in crisis.'
Perhaps that is so. But, at first hand, I can verify that many people did not attend their court appearance. A patent waste of time, money and, presumably, a significant factor in the 'courts in crisis' scenario. These people will have to be called again. And possibly again. It makes no sense whatsoever. In the first court I attended the sheriff called an adjournment after less than an hour of sitting. Perhaps I have been too efficient, he said (and I heard it!). Rather than an obvious efficiency on his part, however, it seemed to be entirely because cases were dismissed because of the lack of documents, or that people had not turned up. So no Brownie points to the sheriff.
So what of the case that I did actually hear, courtesy of a fiscal with an unusually loud voice? One can only assume that she was relatively new and had not yet been schooled into how to drop her voice several registers. The young man, 30 years old, stepped into the dock, smart, well-dressed. We were told he was a supervisor in a car valeting company.
On New Year's Eve, he and his wife of four years had been celebrating in a pub. Leaving it, at 1.30am, they went home and a row ensued. During the argument, the accused pushed over the Christmas tree decorating the living room (real or plastic, we weren't told), and then, his frustration still not sated, he punched a mirror, presumably hurting his hand. He did not lay a finger on his wife but, clearly upset, she texted a friend, who phoned the police. He was cautioned and charged. Abusive behaviour to inanimate objects is clearly not to be tolerated.
His wife sent a letter to court. Her husband's behaviour, she said, was entirely out of character. He was still grieving the untimely death in an accident of a cousin. He had had too much to drink. I admonish you, said the sheriff, don't let this happen again. On this occasion, justice was, for once, heard to be done. But what an utter waste of resources. What an indictment of our justice system.
This article was first published in SR in 2015