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

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


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!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot