So you thought our courts were open and accessible? Think again

It's far too difficult to get information unless you have an 'in'.

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A week or so ago, I made my first visit to the Old Bailey – not, I hasten to add, as a defendant, but to watch a hearing from the public gallery.

Compared with the new Commercial Court, where the paint seems scarcely dry, everything about this venerable courthouse feels stuck in a bygone age. But it wasn’t the oppressive details that got to me – the barked instructions from officials, the confiscation of my cough sweets as “food and drink, health and safety”, or the ban on  phones that gives a shop across the road a nice little earner looking after them – so much as the dearth of useful information. 

Talk about an institution in urgent need of glasnost. If you thought MPs were still a little secretive about their expenses, they have nothing, but nothing, on the English courts. And this is a disgrace. The only reason I knew about this hearing at all was because the police had answered a question I’d asked with the answer to the question they thought I’d asked (but hadn’t).

When I tried to confirm the date, discover the timing, find out whether it was a hearing or a trial, I was told the information was only  released after 16: 30 the day before. And that from an agency whose main purpose, so far as I can divine, is to disseminate court listings. If you contact the actual court, the same effective embargo applies.

I’m sorry, but most people can’t organise their lives on that basis. Nor, of course, can lawyers, for whom the date, time and nature of the hearing must surely be known well in advance. And given that the information exists, why is it then not available to all? A huge fuss is made periodically about justice being not only done, but seen to be done. Yet to be seen to be done, justice must be open and accessible – and that means advance lists of hearings and trials, with full details of the defendants and the charges.

Oh, but the court told me, your colleagues (i.e. journalists) seem to obtain all the information they need. Which only reinforces the point. If you are familiar with the system and have an “in” with certain officials, “tips” may come your way as a favour – essentially, a gesture of power. And if not, well, the door to the public gallery might as well be closed, for all the use the uninitiated can make of it. 

Hard truths and  tree-planting

Apologies to all you dab hands at arboriculture but, for a novice, tree-planting is a lot harder than its ceremonial version looks. Among the many projects we one-time Olympics volunteers have been encouraged to join – and the only one, to my shame, I’ve so far signed up to – is helping to create a couple of new forests on the fringes of London. Which is why I – whose last successful planting job was probably nasturtiums in a disused cucumber-frame when I was five – found myself donning my pink and purple get-up one more time and taking the Tube out east to Dagenham, among what seemed like a million Chelsea fans limbering up for a duel at West Ham.

Once inducted into the niceties of spade-work, turf-cutting and actual planting, some deep survival instinct made me pair up with someone considerably taller and stronger than me who turned out to have long experience on a relative’s farm. Suffice to say, I couldn’t even force the spade into the ground, let alone ease out any turf – so she took over the spade work, I did the bending – inserting the sapling, putting back the earth, pegging down the mat – and we completed our dozen trees as quite an efficient partnership. Next time I see a Royal planting a tree on TV, I’ll be watching for evidence of cheating!