A day in the life of Cambridge Magistrates’ Court



Rocking up to see justice in action

While filming a local planning meeting at The Guildhall, I discovered that the Cambridge News was covering the goings on at our magistrates courts in what I could describe as an ‘open justice day’. Yet how many of us know that the courts are public, and that anyone can rock up and sit in to watch a court case in action?

The court is on St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge. For anyone coming into Cambridge from the south by bus, as soon as you get off the Citi buses 1,2 and 3, you are right outside the court.

“You can’t carry that camcorder in here”

When you go in, you have your bags searched along with going through an airport scanner facilitated by the outsourced security staff – Cambridge’s one being run by Mitie. In days gone by, these functions would have been performed in house and the staff concerned would have been civil servants. Which makes me wonder whether they are seen as public sector or private sector in official statistics. Because if the latter, then is the size of the public sector under-stated and the private sector over-stated?

You then go into the lifts and they send you up a few floors. From there, you walk out of the lifts and round a corner to find the surprisingly small court rooms lined up next to each other. For some reason I expected the set up to have the visible signs of prison and jail – but there wasn’t. Maybe I had been watching too much TV.

Hesitating before going into Court Room No.3

Which is where Josh Thomas of the Cambridge News was.

Tara Cox normally takes the lead on court cases, with Josh covering local government. Sometimes they swap over. Talking of court reporters, one of the most famous authors in the world started out as a court reporter – Charles Dickens. More than a few authors have followed that path, reporting from a court for several years before going onto become writers.

I didn’t go straight in because someone seemed to be speaking in full flow so didn’t want to interrupt – or worst of all be found in contempt of court and thrown into jail for interrupting proceedings. But after a few minutes I poked my head to the window and quietly sat down on the press bench, which was placed between where the witnesses were and where the accused was giving evidence, seated in a pokey little witness stand – or seat as it were. Compared to the magistrates court room built into the Guildhall, this one was much more ‘corporate’

The projector screen behind the witness stand at the old Magistrates Court in the Guildhall.

The crest in the current court looks like a pure plaster-cast rather than the colourful version here.

Reporting restrictions

Because rules is rules.

Under English Law it is a general principal that court proceedings should be held openly and in public in order for members of the general public can be informed fully about the justice which is said to have been administered in their name.”

Mindful of the general principle that you can only state who said what in an open court – and nothing else until sentence is passed, I stuck only tweeting who said what – even though had it been a TV show the temptation to pass comment would have been huge.

The thing that slightly disturbed me was the lack of a visible security presence in the court room given the witnesses and the accused seemed to be in quite close proximity. It felt like there was only me, Josh and another bloke separating the accused on the witness stand and the witnesses at the back.

With the case I was viewing, the one thing I had in the back of my mind was that the ultimate result of this case was that the man being cross-examined by the prosecution, if convicted, could end up in prison. I then turned around to look at the witnesses who made the complaints resulting in charges being brought against the accused, & it made me realise how much courage it takes for someone to stand up in court and testify against another individual.

2 men and one woman on the magistrates bench

That, along with the prosecutor for the Crown being a Black male, along with myself in the press bench and the witnesses being of mixed heritage, we made for a reasonably diverse court room. It wasn’t always that way. 100 years ago women were banned from serving as magistrates. It was only after the ban was removed that women were able to serve as magistrates.

200901 Manning Bethune Harrison magistrates oath

Edith Bethune Baker, Leah Manning, and Jane Harrison all being sworn in as magistrates in autumn 1920, and hearing their first cases. The other two women not featured in that session who were also sworn in as part of the first cohort of Cambridge Women Magistrates were Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes, who between the two of them gave over a century of charitable and public service to Cambridge.

200723 Magistrates

How do we raise the profile of Magistrates Courts?

The invitation is there.

Our county magistrates have a website at http://www.cambsmagistrates.org.uk/

But what we don’t have are automated court lists published online that are understandable and accessible. There isn’t even a noticeboard on the outside of the court building – which means they are missing a trick given that one of the major bus stops in the city is on their doorstep. A waiting public reads noticeboards – if only to kill time.

Just as council meetings are open to the public there’s something about watching public institutions in action that shakes you out of your bubble – whichever bubble it is that we live in.

One of the things that participating in local democracy and public services teaches you is about the general public – and how very different many people are to you and each other. Furthermore, when going along to a local council meeting you are dealing with people who, more often than not have got a complaint about an issue. In the court cases, you are hearing testimony from individuals – whether the accused persons or witnesses to a court case, who are all in extremely vulnerable and exposed positions. All of them are under pressure and are dealing with things that, for most of us are not part of day-to-day life.

“Isn’t there something akin to watching ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show” by going to court just to watch a court case?”

My take is Mr Kyle’s show has got nothing to match the court cases that happen in magistrates courts all over the country – for the simple reason that a TV show is able to pick and choose who they feature and how they feature them. A magistrates court has to deal with whoever the prosecuting authorities haul before them. You don’t have a Jerry Springer-style audience baying for TV blood. It was Mr Thomas’s predecessors who wrote an account of the last public hanging on Castle Hill, Cambridge in the mid-1800s. I blogged about it here – press conference with hangman included. It’s easy to forget that the abolition of public hangings were a concession to campaigners in the mid-1800s campaigning for the abolition of capital punishment completely.

When you are inside that court room watching the advocates making their cases, or inside that council chamber watching the exchanges in the run up to a substantive vote that can make or break a community service in a neighbourhood. Especially when the choice in front of councillors is to decide where the axe will fall – more often than not because of cuts that have come from central government and passed down the chain. When you are seeing the responsible persons deliberating making the decisions, or the persons affected pleading their cases before the magistrates’ bench, it feels so much more real. Not something that, like with a television set you can press the ‘off’ switch.


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