One o'clock in the morning: an 18-year-old girl sits listening, or maybe not, as a string of accusations is read out: that she attacked shops, forced entry, hurled concrete masonry first at police – who fled – and then at their £60,000 patrol car, causing £5,000 of damage. She is said to have been identified by her distinctive appearance and, it emerges, because her estranged mother was watching television and phoned the police. Hers is just one case, among 60, to be heard at a special all-night sitting of the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court – sittings replicated around the country to deal with this week's looters, arsonists and muggers.
The teenager was preceded in the dock by a tall, stooped black man, with a beard, who shambled in to answer charges of attempted burglary, burglary and handling stolen goods, relating to the disturbances in east London. There was mention of mental-health issues. He pleaded guilty as charged, before being remanded to a Crown Court. The accused was led out.
Between 12.15am and 2.30am, just four cases were heard. In one, there was a homeless man under treatment for serious illness, who was accused of looting an off-licence. In another, a man in his twenties was accused of stealing £40,000-worth of electrical goods.
All were black or mixed race. And all, in their separate ways, seemed to personify strands of disadvantage: family, social or health dysfunction. These were not the budding professionals jeopardising their life chances. They were already-scarred individuals, many had previous convictions, and it was hard to see how their problems could ever be remedied by any means short of one-to-one nurturing, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Relatives, friends, lawyers, court officials, reporters and a very few curious members of the public milled around the court building. Among the lawyers and the court officials, though, fatigue was spiked with a strange sense of purpose.
At dead of night, Westminster Magistrates' Court was a buzz of activity. And, while not exactly welcoming, police and court officials seemed to want to show that justice could not only be done competently in the nocturnal hours, but it could also be seen to be done.