Outside, the world is cold. Later the streets would be frosted with snowflakes, back for a second time; I’m outside the building, not knowing if I’m allowed inside. It’s the day of our Court ‘field trip.’
As part of my NCTJ qualification, Court Reporting is a module; with this-under Essential Journalism-we were told that one Saturday, we would be going to the local Magistrates. (Or “Mags” as we call it.) The idea would be to take notes-Shorthand pads at the ready!-in order to write a story.
I was slightly worried; due to the potential snowfall, I knew that the trains would be a nightmare. So.. I was up early, having laid out my ‘professional’ outfit the night before, complete with a map of where to go. (I don’t know Brighton as well as I should do by now.)
First: security. Think Airport-style security; you go through, emptying your pockets, and having your bag searched. You’re also scanned.
We then went through to the Public Gallery in Court One. (It has a glass screen-meaning that we would be allowed to talk. We would also have the view of the court-whereas if we were in the Press box, we would be in the court, not behind a screen.)
I think it was clear that the public gallery is very rarely in use; at times it was like we were an object of curiosity. (Occasionally there were roaming eyes-and I remember blushing when looking up, only to meet the eye of the district judge.)
In total, we heard the grand total of five cases. I found it hard at times not to be judgemental, recoiling with disgust at the alleged crimes; focusing on taking notes was made difficult by this at times. (Focusing on the facts, and not recording impressions, is what’s best to do; that’s the crucial thing I learnt.) However, the sixty words a minute Shorthand was definitely an asset; this enabled me to get down details of the offence, the ‘scope’ of what can be reported and more.
Throughout, I was also thinking in terms of Law; Section 52A came in to effect a lot. As a general rule of thumb, you can’t publish prejudicial information in particular circumstances (i.e “Not guilty.) So: you cannot report what has been said as evidence, the background to bail arrangements (like if it is opposed), etc. It could be a little bit tiresome at times-knowing that some of your notes, carefully taken, were now redundant.
But it was fascinating-maybe that’s not the right word. I had never been inside a court prior to this; rather, my impressions and knowledge were largely based on Judge Judy and the occasional Judge Rinder. This court was not hyper-stylised; neither was there the gloss provided by careful, selective editing.
Yet.. it was in real time. These are actual people with their fates being decided before your very eyes. (I also thought it kind of chilling, when there was a guilty plea-the cuffs come out, and then it’s back to cells.)
One thing I struggled with slightly was the continual rising; the public gallery was not a comfortable environment. By the time we had to rise, sit down, the rise again, I could barely feel my legs or feet; the cold outside had contributed to the numbness, yet the physical logistics of getting up was not working for me. (Lesson learnt; wear warmer tights!)
This was a useful trip-something that I will always remember-and it’s a way for extra copy, if needed. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be visiting the Old Bailey next.