A day in the High Court: Love, race, class

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The Independent Online
As a cricketer, Imran Khan recognised the grandeur of the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday. A six, struck well at the entrance of its Great Hall, would still have fallen short of Queen Victoria's bust at the other end of what is a Gothic cathedral. "Massive, awesome," said Pakistan's former skipper as he stood in its midst, with his wife, Jemima, a few paces behind. (A deference that caused apoplexy among photographers outside, who were trying to capture the gilded couple together).

"I've never been in court before," said Khan, there to defend himself against charges that he has libelled England's finest, Ian Botham and Alan Lamb.

Away from this battle of cricketing goliaths, a different justice was being sought. As Jemima glided into Court 19 in her blue kaftan dress with kitten-heeled open sandals, Alan Bell was in Court 52, seeking compensation from Camden Council. A former postman, Mr Bell, 62, fell down some steps during his deliveries in 1989. He has hardly worked since, due to a back injury. "I don't sleep with the wife anymore, because I always wake up in the night." As George Carman QC flirted with the jury on pounds 500-plus per hour in the Imran Khan case, Mr Bell sought some restoration of six years' wages, worth pounds 250 a week. Were the steps slippery and dangerous? Mr Bell will hear tomorrow what the judge thinks.

These Royal Courts are no ordinary court buildings. They may have recalled for Khan the elegance of Oxford University, his alma mater. But they are quite different from the squat, forbidding fortress of the Old Bailey, only 15 minutes' walk away, which reeks of prosecution and persecution. The Great Hall, opened in 1882, with its vaulted roof in white stone, stained glass windows, marble floors and uplifting arches produces a solemnity more in praise of God than law. The "daily cause" list looks at first more a petition for lost souls than a catalogue of accusation.

The judges' entrance is a more honest representation of true purpose. Over it are a stone cat and dog representing litigants in court. And yesterday saw all of human life laid bare - pettiness alongside life and death - at the apex of Britain's civil and appeal court system.

Imran Khan was not the only big hitter. There was Colin Moynihan, a former Tory sports minister and Olympic rowing medalist, fighting for his late half-brother's peerage against those springing from the deceased Lord Moynihan's sleazy past: Daniel, five- year-old son of a Filippina belly-dancer, and Andrew, seven-year-old child of another of his Oriental brides. Terry Venables was down to defend himself against those who want to disqualify him as a company director. But, like the ongoing saga of an attempted takeover of Leeds United Football Club, it was adjourned. Likewise, the Mousetrap of the court's daily th eatre, the McDonald's libel trial, Britain's longest ever, took a day off. Litigation is the lifeblood of these courts. In the Great Hall are two portraits, known as "The Fire Judges", the judges who settled the land disputes after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Today, the celebrities are barristers. In Court 19 are twoof t he finest, George Carman, street-fighter, representing the elegant Khan, and Charles Gray QC, patrician, representing bad boy Botham. "A libel action," one defamation lawyer said yesterday, "is like putting on a stage production. The only difference is that you don't have a script for the witness. You never know what your actors will say. It gives colour, uncertainty and a seriousedge to the drama." And yesterday, Gray, like a formulaic Greek playright, set out the plot and moral of his tale as he laid out the rules of cricket and Khan's "offensive" accusations about ball-tampering, race and class. And last night, Howard Law-Thompson slept with more hope. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after he confessed to the police that he tried to kill his mother with a cleaver. But, yesterday, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, one of Britain's leading mental he alth law experts, told Court 7 how the 17-year-old had been interviewed without the required responsible adult, even though he had been diagnosed with adult autism. His appeal continues. At the end of the day's business, 4.30pm, Imran, Botham, Jemima, Sir Louis and Alan Bell streamed out of the Royal Courts into the sunlight.In the cloistered calm left behind, it would have been fitting for a line of monks to file out for Evensong.