Big-city justice descends on small-town Gloucestershire

Will Bennett reports from Dursley where committal proceedings begin tod ay against Rosemary West
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The Independent Online
The normally deserted courthouse in Dursley has been prepared and staffed at a cost of £17,500. Next door, the school has hired a metal roadway for £1,500 to stop television vans from sinking into the mud on its playing field.

Today the small Gloucestershire town will experience a media invasion, an event unprecedented in its long history and regarded by its population of 5,800 with a mixture of bemusement and apprehension.

About 70 reporters accompanied by scores of photographers and television crews will arrive for the start of the committal hearing which will decide whether Rosemary West faces trial at a crown court.

Mrs West, 41, wife of the alleged serial killer Frederick West who committed suicide on New Year's Day, is charged with murdering 10 girls and young women.

She is pleading not guilty. At the hearing, expected to last at least a week, her lawyers will argue that she has no case to answer and that media publicity means that she cannot get a fair trial.

The hearing will be an old-style committal, requested by the defence, at which witnesses will give evidence to an examining magistrate. Because the case is so high-profile, it will be heard by Peter Badge, a full-time professional brought in from London,and not by a part-time local justice of the peace.

Mr Badge, 63, will have to decide whether Mrs West should be tried by a judge and jury.

He is immensely experienced, having been a stipendiary magistrate in the capital for 20 years and the Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate since 1992.

However, unless the defence requests that reporting restrictions are lifted, which it has said that it will not, the evidence given will not be published or broadcast unless Mr Badge decides not to commit Mrs West. Rarely will have so many pens scribbledfor so little immediate result. What worries some detectives is that while British news organisations are restricted in what they can write or broadcast, foreign television networks and newspapers could reveal the evidence.

It is a measure of the importance attached to media coverage that Mr Badge will address all the reporters in the courtroom before the hearing gets under way today.

Dursley was chosen because its courthouse is now used only for training JPs and so the risk of the media circus disrupting a working magistrates court is avoided. There are only 12 seats in the public gallery so most reporters will listen to the proceedings in two areas served by a newly installed sound system.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has spent £17,500

on providing the system, new carpeting, barriers and other security measures, as well as on staff overtime.

Extra police have been drafted in and the town's narrow streets coned to restrict parking near the court other than at the neighbouring Rednock School.

John Pritchard, the school's headmaster, has spent £1,500 on laying down the metalled roadway so that the media can park on its playing fields.

He will recoup that for school funds by charging each vehicle £20 a day.

Already some television companies have hired parking space in private driveways in the narrow streets near by.

Hotels and bed-and-breakfast houses in the area have been busily touting for business, some even writing to or faxing national newspapers to advertise their rates.

Mr Pritchard has warned his pupils not to go and look at the activity that will surround the courthouse.

He said: "This will be the biggest thing that has happened for a long time in Dursley. I don't think people realise the impact it is going to have."