The defendant's sleepy, the barrister's hungry, but the show must go on

The night court: Two nations come face to face
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The Independent Online

The defendant is falling asleep in the dock; he wants to go home, but his only address is the doorway of a bookshop in the West End.

The defendant is falling asleep in the dock. He wants to go home, but his only address is the doorway of a bookshop in the West End.

"That is his home," says one of the solicitors on duty late this Friday night. "And that is the reality of life in London."

Her colleague yawns. It is just after 8pm and we are watching the first night court to be held in the capital. New York has them to enforce its zero tolerance toward street crime, and they are being tried here for four months. Bow Street Magistrates Court will open on Friday and Saturday nights and Manchester two evenings in the week.

The aim is to speed up the time between the crime and appearance in court, which is supposed to reduce the number of re-offenders, bring faster justice for victims, and cut the backlog of cases.

The 34-year-old in court now was arrested earlier today for possessing an offensive weapon ­ a mop handle. He says he was scared of attack and wanted to use the mop handle to defend himself. The legal papers arrived only 45 minutes ago, so the district judge wants to adjourn, but is not sure he can grant bail if the defendant has no proper address.

Judge Christopher Pratt is well spoken and dapper. The defendant is wearing soiled jeans and shoes with holes in them. Their two worlds co-exist in the city all the time, but rarely meet eye to eye like this.

Judge Pratt would like to send him to a bail hostel, but the probation officer says there are no beds available in London tonight. The judge asks her to try, and stands the case down for a while, but, even if a bed is found, the man will have to be in it by 10.30pm, which looks increasingly unlikely.

The court was due to start at six, but the security vans bringing defendants from police cells were delayed in traffic, so the first case was heard an hour late. It was a 28-year-old Scot who pleaded guilty to having been drunk and disorderly in the early hours. He got a day in jail, which was considered as having been served.

A homeless man was also sentenced to a day for possessing cannabis. He will be released at 11pm, back on to the streets.

The court is adjourned for an hour at 8.15pm. "Is there anywhere around here to get a quick sandwich?" asks a solicitor. The security guard shakes his head. All the coffee bars closed hours ago.

Down in the cells, a man who refused to see a lawyer at first has now decided to change his plea to guilty. Julian Young, a duty solicitor, advises him against it, because elements of the prosecution case need examining. "At night, people get tired, they want to get it over and done with," says Mr Young. "That can lead to injustice. Speeding up the process is fine, as long as we do not sacrifice justice."

He does not believe night sessions are the most cost-effective way to ease the pressure on courts. "This is a pilot, but it is costing millions. Apart from legal fees, you are paying the clerks, the security guards, the probation officers, and so on. What are we getting for that? A few more people are kept off the streets for a while, but they're going straight back out there now."

The night court has provided this, the first and most famous magistrates' court in London, with a last moment in the limelight before it is scheduled to close. The present court was built in 1881 and has hosted many infamous prisoners including Dr Crippen. This is also where the Artful Dodger appeared before magistrates in Oliver Twist. The case load does not seem to have changed much ­ six of the 13 defendants tonight were accused of theft, most of it petty.

The skylights above our heads are black as the man with the mop handle is given bail, on condition he reports to a police station twice a day. He will be sleeping rough tonight.

The last case finishes at 11.04pm. Outside, it is pouring. The court staff will drive home, or catch taxis. The Royal Opera House across the road is empty, but there are still crowds in the bars of Covent Garden, spilling out on to the streets. It will be cold and damp in the doorway of Books Etc, but there is no place like home.