Hawkers, hookers and Albanians

For decades Marlborough Street magistrates' court in Soho has been dispensing conveyor-belt justice to every sort of petty offender. Anthony Middleton spent a day in their company
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Pumo Mimoza rests her tear-stained face on the dock and murmurs in Albanian. After two nights in police cells, she looks distraught, dishevelled, barely hearing the court interpreter as he translates how she and her friend were caught stealing £500-worth of clothes from C&A in Oxford Street. Now they are up before the bench in Marlborough Street magistrates' court, Soho.

The duty solicitor says these two single mothers deserve leniency. They are thoroughly ashamed, he explains. "They even apologised for forcing me to represent them." Here on a business trip, he says, they went to Oxford Street to buy presents. However, they were shocked by the high prices. The women earn £450 a year. They were tempted to steal. They succumbed.

Quentin Campbell, the stipendiary magistrate, seems unimpressed. Portly and pinstriped, he rules over the court with laconic authority, sighing silently and glancing upwards from time to time at the skylit ceiling of the Edwardian courtroom.

With more than 50 shoplifting cases and dozens of other minor crimes to deal with each week, he has heard every excuse in the book. He knows it is possible that these women are professional shoplifters, but proper investigation could take days and he has a dozen other cases waiting. So he gives them a conditional discharge. They are led back to the cells, overwhelmed by how quickly they have been processed through the British legal system. Their sobs diminish as they disappear into the distance. In less than half of one working day they're off scot free, apart from the £60 costs. Production-line justice is Marlborough Street's speciality.

Marlborough Street fields cases from one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world: Soho, Mayfair, Marylebone and Oxford Street. Serious crimes are shuffled swiftly on to a higher court, but for the hawkers, prostitutes and shoplifters who eke a living from the rich pickings of the West End, regular punishment at Marlborough Street comes with the territory; the fines and short prison sentences are regarded as a form of income tax. Irritating but predictable.

Throughout the morning, the court is rarely silent. Solicitors confer, jailers gossip, staff whisk in and out. Friends and family of the defendants watch anxiously from behind the security glass of the public gallery. The atmosphere is regulated chaos.

A "designer label" perfume- seller from Oxford Street enters. He gives the customary nod to the bench and waits to be called. A middle-aged skinhead, he is both nonchalant and apologetic as he climbs to the dock. He looks as if he was born making excuses. "We'd like to thank you for turning up on time," says Mr Campbell.

The seller shrugs his shoulders. Mr Campbell fines him £25 for illegal trading, plus £10 costs, and asks when he can pay. "In 14 days, sir," he says perfunctorily, barely waiting while the magistrate warns him that he will be arrested if he defaults.

Keeping Marlborough Street running smoothly since 1972 is the chief clerk, Eric Yabsley, a refined 64-year-old former barrister. Mr Yabsley enjoys the picaresque wealth of characters who pass through court. He will probably have regrets when he retires this summer. "There's so much human interest here. Something different happens every day," he says.

Mr Yabsley finds the habitual criminals unabashed by repeated visits to Marlborough Street. "You often bump into the regulars on the street, the illegal traders and prostitutes. They have no hard feelings towards you; it's just an occupational hazard."

While daytime crime in the West End is generally the preserve of fly- pitchers and shoplifters, at night the Soho sex industry awakens. Marlborough Street no longer witnesses the parades of prostitutes it used to, though an occasional police sweep may pick up a few on soliciting charges. "The prostitutes we see tend to be the more desperate or unlucky ones, those that have to work on the street," Mr Yabsley says. There is no nostalgia in his voice.

Soho's sex shops are sometimes prosecuted here, though what is considered obscene has changed over the years since Mr Yabsley began his career as a clerk. In 1962, he worked on the Lady Chatterley's Lover prosecution. "It wouldn't raise an eyebrow now," he sighs.

He prides himself on making the court as friendly as possible. Still, he holds uncompromising views. "I don't believe crime is a result of poverty. Many people would rather starve than steal - it's greed, not need." He says the biggest change during his career in the courts has been the growth of drug use and its attendant crimes. Apart from tourists, every shoplifter who appears today is an addict.

Slouching in the dock, a 20-year-old addict is charged with stealing £200-worth of blouses from Littlewoods in Oxford Street. He stares into space, eyes swollen, as the details are read out by the prosecution solicitor. It is explained that the accused had been given a conditional discharge for shoplifting the week before, then "went out and recommitted an identical offence just about as quickly as he could". The boy's solicitor counters by explaining that his client fell in with the "wrong sort" at a hostel, who gave him drugs and encouraged him to steal.

The boy is clearly expecting a light sentence. But his solicitor is interrupted by Mr Campbell, who leans back, slightly raises his voice and says: "I have to say I'm thinking of eight months in prison at the moment." The boy stiffens and stares at the bench as the magistrate remands him. Mental health reports will be made prior to sentencing.

More emaciated addicts follow, one by one, an apparently endless procession.

Sitting at the back, half-heartedly taking notes, the court reporter James Millbank admits defeat towards the end of the session and heads off without a story. "Nothing here, not even a provincial shoplifter." Regional papers love stories about locals who come a cropper in the capital, he says.

Mr Millbank works for the Tony Asciak news agency, which has covered Marlborough Street for more than 100 years. The agency lives in hope of a celebrity appearing unannounced, guaranteeing tabloid interest. But the best Mr Millbank can remember is the actress Amanda Donohoe's appearance last year on drink- driving charges. The unending flow of heroin and crack users does not make for good copy. No one's interested.

A young couple, their faces pained by withdrawal, are brought in and charged with shoplifting. As they mount the wrought-iron dock, the man's brother darts into court and attempts to grasp the defendant. It is an emotional moment in an otherwise neat and orderly day. One of the court's burly Securicor Custodial Service jailers firmly ejects him into the public gallery. A rare burst of action.

A laggish-looking pirate-tape seller is the final case and is dealt with in five minutes. Mr Campbell dismisses him with a small fine, hardly bothering to chastise him, other than to solicit his views on illegal street-trading. The scruffy seller mumbles something about his debts and then speaks up for all to hear: ``Well, I've got to get the money somehow. To pay off the fines, your Honour." Quentin Campbell manages a smile.