A weekend trial trail

Opening courts to the public gives many a view they'd usually prefer to avoid, writes Jenny Knight
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The Independent Online
A bid to demystify the magistracy by holding open days at magistrates' courts is proving astonishingly popular, with townsfolk turning up in their hundreds to tour local courtrooms. Some 1,800 burghers of Bromley, Kent, recently queued to get into their magistrates' court. It was a chance for the law-abiding to sit in the dock and for those whose life had already supplied that experience to try out the view from the magistrates' bench.

The popularity of the open days is surprising, since most courts - excluding juvenile and family courts - are routinely open for the public to watch real cases with the possibility of seeing neighbours or workmates cringing in the dock. Instead, open day visitors watch mock trials acted out by magistrates, court officials and solicitors.

At Bromley, two 40-minute cases were enacted throughout the day - one a drink/driving offence and the other an application for bail by a burglar. The role of the burglar was played by magistrate Tony Jennings, 55. While the magistrates retired to consider their "verdicts" the public were asked what decision they would have reached.

Jennings said: "I was supposed to have been arrested near the house I had just burgled and a van containing the stolen goods was found nearby. The magistrates remanded me in custody after each of the four hearings but the public voted once to remand me in custody, twice to give me conditional bail and once they were completely split.

"The teams of solicitors and Crown prosecutors kept changing round and both times I got bail from the public I had the same solicitor representing me. One of the public jokingly asked for his business card. I think the public were more easily swayed by his representations than the magistrates who hear those pleas all the time. We asked the public to give a show of hands to see who had been burgled and to some extent those tended to vote against bail."

The numbers who turn up for open days can be seen as a sign of the ordinary citizen's interest in the process of justice or an indication of how far people will travel for free entertainment, but the chairman of Bromley magistrates, Kenneth Hack, was delighted with the day's success.

"This is a brand-new building opened in March by the Lord Chancellor," he said, "and the open day was an opportunity for the new facilities to be seen by the citizens of Bromley who paid for the building. Most of the people had probably never been near a court before. Finding out how things work can change perceptions."

Most visitors were middle aged or over and, judging from comments made while touring the cells and prison van, the majority favoured the "throw away the key" brand of retribution.

"You bring them in and the judge lets them all out again," quipped one man as he inspected the 14-cell van which transports prisoners to and from court. "I blame social deprivation and the victims," joked another.

Jane Bond, who works for Securicor Custodial Services, had sympathy for the prisoners who are led handcuffed to the van and then locked up in tiny individual cells each with a seat, window and radio.

"During my training I was locked in one of these cells for one minute and I nearly screamed the place down. We don't get much trouble from prisoners, though. If they can produce a doctor's letter proving they have pre-existing claustrophobia they can be brought to court by car - otherwise they have to go in the van."

The court's suite of stark cells with sturdy doors branching off from a corridor lined with panic alarm strips was also viewed with ghoulish relish by the blameless citizens of Bromley.

But a transformation came over many of these people when they watched mock courtroom proceedings and began to think of those in the dock as not just social menaces but people with problems and inadequacies. Those who voted to give the "burglar" bail said they felt sorry for him after hearing he had a young family and might lose his job and home if he was given a jail sentence.

Many of the court's 120 magistrates and court staff of 40 helped show visitors around. Displays were put on by the police, Law Society, victim support, social services, lay visitors panel, probation service, TV licence detection and the youth justice section.

Handicrafts made by offenders doing community service were also on show. Madeleine McCubbin, a senior community service officer, explained how community service, often derided as a soft punishment, forces offenders to go to work on time, obey orders, concentrate on a job, work as a member of a team and enjoy the camaraderie of a group - often for the first time in their lives.

One listener inquired doubtfully: "When criminals go out to do work for ordinary people it must be worrying - particularly if they are elderly."

She was answered by Mrs Ivy Peel, 71, who piped up: "Oh no - we had our garden done while my husband was in hospital. Two nice young men came with another man looking after them. They were thrilled to bits when I gave them a piece of cake with their tea. They were very nice and grateful."

Michael Lawson, a local vicar, and his three daughters were among the visitors.

"I wanted to see inside the new courts which we watched going up," he said. "The facilities are very good. Crime needs to be dealt with effectively but you can see this building makes it possible to deal with people sympathetically.

"Magistrates' courts should not be very forbidding places because a lot of people are innocent of the charges and it's wrong that they should be frightened to death by the look of the building and the formality" n