One o'clock in the morning: an 18-year-old girl in a tight T-shirt and jeans 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 damage. Good-quality CCTV pictures apparently show her in a street in Enfield, north London, around 6pm on Sunday. She is, so the prosecution lawyer says, with a predominantly male group of about 50 masked individuals who are behaving with extreme violence. She is said to have been identified by her distinctive appearance and, it emerges, because her estranged mother was watching TV and phoned the police. The girl rises to give her name, address (none) and date of birth, then she sits back down, appearing listless, bored and petulant by turns as proceedings motor on. Hers is just one case, among 60, to be heard at a special all-night sitting of Westminster magistrates' court – sittings replicated around the country to deal with this week's looters, arsonists and muggers.
She faces charges including violence, theft of telephone equipment and criminal damage. Almost in a whisper, she pleads not guilty. Her lawyer puts the case for bail, saying that since she broke with her mother at 16 and then with her stepmother, she had been staying at a friend's flat in a nearby tower block. She is refused bail and told to appear at Highbury Corner on 17 August, pending referral to the crown court.
The defence lawyer mentions her sporting expertise, which included playing football "to a respectable level". In fact, the prosecution noted, she had been invited to a reception in the House of Commons – a five-minute walk from the court – to celebrate the success of a community sports programme two years before.
The teenager was preceded in the dock by a tall, stooped black man, with a beard, who shambled in, in a fresh white T-shirt, 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. At times bewildered, and waiting on the nod from his lawyer, he pleaded guilty, 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 east London off-licence, where a mob removed £10,000 of stock in five minutes. In another, a well-built man in his 20s was accused of stealing £40,000 worth of electrical goods.
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.
Two guilty pleas brought remands to crown courts – because the magistrates did not have the power to impose penalties deemed severe enough. "These are very serious offences," the magistrate repeatedly intoned. The two pleading not guilty were remanded to appear at another magistrates' court in a week's time. Very few got bail, not even – later in the night – a woman with a baby of just six weeks.
Relatives, friends, lawyers, court officials, reporters and a very few curious members of the public milled around the court building, betraying increasing tiredness and frustration. People kipped down in the corridors and on the stairs. Among the lawyers and the court officials, though, fatigue was spiked with a strange sense of purpose.
I visited this building a few months before, and found everyone from security to administrative staff universally sullen and obstructive. Now, 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.
The 17-year-old girl from Croydon, who cannot be named for legal reasons, handed herself in to police after spotting her picture in a newspaper appeal.
Westminster magistrates' court heard how she was among 30 or 40 young people who stormed into the Richer Sounds store during the riots in Croydon on Monday night.
She was captured on CCTV entering the store before emerging with a large-screen television. She later returned to claim a second television. In total, the store said it lost £190,000 of equipment.
The court heard how the girl, who appeared in the dock with her dyed blonde hair in braids and spoke softly only to confirm her name and age, had studied ballet since the age of seven and had secured a place at a dance academy. Her lawyer said she hoped to become a dancer and dance teacher. The court heard that, despite a search of her home, the televisions were not recovered. She pleaded guilty to burglary and was remanded in custody until her appearance at a crown court.
The journalism student
Ahmed Farah, 27, a journalism and history student from Hackney, east London, was arrested on Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, carrying a kitchen knife. The student, who studies at East London University, told police he had been returning from his uncle's restaurant where he works as a chef.
He pleaded guilty to possession of a knife blade, but the magistrate denied his application for bail. He was remanded in custody until his appearance at crown court later this month.
The would-be sportswoman
Chelsea Ives, 18, was arrested after her mother spotted her on television and called police.
She was filmed by the BBC throwing bricks at a £60,000 police car during the violence in Enfield on Sunday night.
She was also charged with breaking into the mobile phone shops Fones 4 U and Vodafone and stealing equipment.
"She was first to pick up masonry and hurl it at the window," said Becky Owens, for the prosecution.
Westminster magistrates' court heard that Ms Ives said after the alleged rampage that she had "the best day ever".
Ms Ives denied two counts of burglary, violent disorder and attacking a police car. She was described by her solicitor as a "talented sportswoman".
She was remanded in custody until a date in August.
The estate agent, trainee accountant and engineering student
Saffron Armstrong, 22, an accountancy and finance student, Kairo Lawson, 22, a second-year civil engineering student, and Gassam Ojjeh, 22, an estate agent, all from Mitcham, Surrey, were allegedly caught inside a burnt-out PC World store in Colliers Wood when police dogs entered the shop.
The defendants were found in the store on Wednesday, 24 hours after it had been raided by looters during the riots, the court heard. Lisa Brown, for the prosecution, said they had been discovered at around 10.40pm on Monday.
"Clearly these riots were some of the worst that took place," she said. "Substantial damage had been caused and properties had been looted. These offences took place against that backdrop."
The court heard how Armstrong told police when they approached him that he was a freelance journalist assessing the damage. Lawson was said to have resisted arrest. His mother, who was said in court to be terminally ill, was in the packed courtroom to witness his hearing.
Armstrong and Lawson pleaded guilty to burglary with intent to steal, while Mr Ojjeh denied the charges. All three were remanded in custody.
The aspiring youth worker
Natasha Reid, 24, from Edmonton, north London, pleaded guilty to theft and entering with intent to steal, at City of Westminster magistrates' court .
The court heard how she had been on her way to McDonald's in Enfield when she noticed a Comet store had been broken into, where she stole a £300 JVC television. Her lawyer said she handed herself in because she could not sleep with the guilt.
The youth worker
Samir Shah, from St John's Wood, north London, was allegedly among 16 young men who ran up Lodge Road in St John's Wood, trashing a string of cafes and restaurants and threatening customers just after midnight on Wednesday.
Becky Owen, for the prosecution, told Westminster magistrates that the group "ransacked properties and terrorised customers" in the area. Police used CS spray to subdue Mr Shah before his arrest, the court heard. It heard how Mr Shah had worked as a peer mentor at a school in Westminster and had taken part in youth events about gun and youth crime. He also coached football and had an offer to start university in September.
He denied violent disorder and was remanded in custody.
The law student
Marouane Rouhi, 21, a second-year law student from St John's Wood, was allegedly among the same group of youths that were rounded up by police after running rampage along Lodge Road. The court heard he was arrested at Taser point. He claimed he was travelling to the local mosque and had nothing to do with the rampage.
He denied violent disorder and was remanded in custody.