What a fascinating day.
We went to The Old Bailey today, to observe the proceedings from the public galleries. We didn’t know what specific trials were taking place. Online information simply stated the case number, the defendant’s name and courtroom number.
We walked around the outside of this iconic building, on the site of Newgate Prison, taking the attached photos. It was a lucky fluke to have blue skies for a short time, as we’d left home in the rain and it was raining again when courts adjourned for lunch. The public galleries are open daily between 10am and 1pm, again between 2pm and 4pm.
Thanks to Trip Advisor, we knew food, drink, electronic gadgets including mobile phones were not allowed in the building, so we left our phones at a reputable letting agency across the street, for a £1 fee. After queuing outside for a while, family members were allowed inside first, then we followed, going through security checks at the door. We did not get to see the beautiful ornate Grand Hall, we used a back entrance with access solely to the public galleries, a plain ordinary staircase and corridors.
Once inside, courts are arranged on three floors. Court officials advised what trials were in session and were happy to answer general questions. Initially, there was only one court occupied, so that is where we started. Throughout the day, we observed three different trials and followed the proceedings for an hour or more, in each courtroom. The process is slow, precise, exact.
Trial A – misconduct in public office
This courtroom was a hive of activity, presided over by a judge in wig and red robes.
Facing the judge were three rows of seats for legal counsel, occupied by eighteen people, twelve gowned and wigged.
The dock was on the back wall, facing the judge. Three men sat in this glassed area, along with a security man.
The jury, which consisted of six men and six women, mixed ages, sat at right angels, near the front of the court.
There were five people in the press seats, also on the side wall, towards the back.
Our view from the gallery was high-up, facing the jury. We had sight of the witness box below us, but not sure what else was beneath our seats.
We heard the prosecution counsel set out their case. The evidence included various news articles published by The Sun newspaper back in 2007 and the amounts paid to informants. We learned afterwards that there were in fact, six defendants, each having two counsel representatives, hence the crowded courtroom. The defendants were either public officials or journalists and the trial related to the “phone hacking” investigations of “Operation Elveden”.
There was a constant rustle of paper and pages being turned, with each counsel having half a dozen thick binders of paperwork in front of them. Jurors shared one binder between two. There were separate files of colour coded timelines, all referred to by page and line numbers. Counsel and the judge had laptops too. After a while, we left this court room to see if other trials had begun for the day.
Trial B – indecent assault
The court had similar setup, this time with a female judge in black gown but only two counsel with an assistant each. There was much less paperwork involved in this trial.
The jury again consisted of six men and six women.
We heard the defence counsel question a protected witness, who sat behind a curtain. The defendant was a doctor while the witness was one of his patients.
The judge took more notes and interrupted several times to clarify points for her self and for the jury. There was detailed questioning back and forth to emphasise points in the witness statement and clarify anomalies.
Trial C – murder
We joined this trial after lunch. Same courtroom setup, male judge, four counsel and four assistants.
The jury in this case consisted of eight men and four women.
We heard the prosecution counsel question a witness, the murder victims widow. As she was a foreigner, all questions and answers went through a translator. Expecting slower progress with the translation process, we in fact learnt a lot about the murder incident in the hour and half we were in court. At one point, we were asked to leave, along with the jury, for a short break while legal questions took place. Again there was limited paperwork, but pages with layout of the murder scene, pictures of specific rooms and the murder weapon were referred to. This witness will return tomorrow for cross examination by the defence counsel.
It was a very interesting day, some trials more absorbing than others. I had sympathy for the jurors on the first trial. Once outside the Old Bailey when we were free to talk about the day and what we’d seen and heard, the trials occupied our discussion for several hours over lunch and our journey home.
I did jury service twenty five years ago, in a local court, on a drug smuggling case at Gatwick airport. The trial only lasted four days and i remember a lot of waiting around, initially to be called into a trial, to go through jury selection, then wait to be discharged mid way through the second week. I found it intriguing and the jury decision making process to be thought provoking. Twelve of us had sat thought the same trial, heard the same evidence and questioning, but had picked up different highlights and priorities. The ensuing debate was enlightening, even thought we eventually agreed on a verdict.
My experience of jury service was before the internet or today’s technology. I was amazed at the information I was able to access on the internet within a couple of minutes, on the defendants and the three trials that we viewed today.
Trial by jury was established in the UK in 1215 with a clause in the Magna Carta, determining the premise of “innocent until proven guilty” and “lawful judgement by his peers”.
An unusual free day out, highly recommended.