Sunday, November 28, 2010

Essay on Court Observation

Essay on Court Observation

The Central Criminal Court was established by the Central Criminal Court Act 1834. It is a component of the Crown Court (the criminal court of first instance), which hears between two and three per cent of all criminal cases, and has an appellate jurisdiction . It replaced the courts of quarter sessions and assizes in accordance with the Courts Act 1971, and forms part of the Supreme Court. The Act also divided England and Wales into six distinct circuits, within which are around 90 Crown Court Centres made up of three tiers. The first tier centres deal with the more serious Crown Court work and High Court civil business. The second tier centres deal solely with Crown Court criminal affairs, and the third tier centres take care of the less serious criminal cases. High Court judges often preside over the first and second tier centres, but do not sit on cases in the third tier. Circuit judges, recorders and assistant recorders however may sit on any of the three tiers.

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The Central Criminal Court comprises of eighteen courts (there is also a video room for courts to use known as Court 19), which handle approximately 1700 cases between them per annum. It is a second tier Crown Court Centre, dealing as such with those offences ‘triable either way’, and indictable offences (i.e. the more serious offences such as murder and rape). The Court has the authority to hear all classes of criminal proceedings, in addition to committals for sentence from Magistrates’ Courts and appeals from Magistrates’ Courts decisions.

The Court building itself is clearly signposted and therefore easily located from St. Paul’s London Underground station. It is an old and prominent building with a distinguished appearance. There are two separate entrances to the courts for the viewing public; one for courts 1 through 4, the other for courts 5 to 18. Both entrances are relatively discreet, and would probably go unnoticed if one were unaware of their existence.

I chose to view proceedings in the top courts (i.e. courts 1 to 4), and coincidentally the viewing galleries for courts 5 through 18 were already full (indicating the level of demand for this facility). Security was understandably strict upon entering the court building, and required passing through a metal detector after an initial bag search by two security personnel. Entry to the viewing galleries was then via five flights of stairs, potentially impeding disabled access to the facilities.

The building has male and female robing rooms, bathroom amenities, interview rooms, a solicitors’ room, a Bar mess and a public cafeteria. Court Security Service guards monitor the main corridor leading to the viewing galleries of each of the courtrooms, and were incredibly obliging when I enquired about the day’s proceedings.

The security guards directed me to Court 3 (the only court in session at the time). The case in progress was R. v. Jacob, V. and R. v. Brown, T., a much publicised case. It was a jury trial, with His Honour Judge Focke Q.C. presiding. The case concerned the murder of a five-week-old infant, and the two defendants in the dock were the child’s parents. The father (Jacob, V.) stood accused of the child’s murder, and the mother (Brown, T.) stood accused of neglect, both had pleaded not guilty. It transpired that this was the fifth day of the trial, and that the prosecution were in the process of cross-examining a coroner (an expert witness) on the witness stand.

The public viewing gallery consisted of four rows of long wooden benches, with a total capacity of around thirty people, and was approximately half full for the duration of my visit. It was situated directly opposite the judge’s bench and above the dock. The view of the courtroom from the back three rows was somewhat restricted, and the seats themselves were particularly uncomfortable, certainly not encouraging a long visit! The room felt very enclosed, with two windows in the vaulted ceiling providing the only sources of natural light. It was an old style courtroom, decorated traditionally with dark oak wood, and green leather seats. There were two large television screens on either side of the courtroom, which despite appearing quite incongruous with the style of the courtroom indicated how the courts are clearly keeping up-to-date with modern technology.

The Judge (a white male) sat on one of five large wooden chairs on the bench. He wore a plain black robe with a white collar, and is like most of the judges who sit in the Crown Court, a circuit judge (appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor). He appeared to be about fifty years of age, and maintained a quiet and unobtrusive demeanour throughout the proceedings.

A logger, recording proceedings, was sat to the judge’s right, and the witness stood next to the jury to his left, facing counsel and the dock. The jury consisted of twelve people (five women and seven men) of varying ages, only two of whom were not white. They were sat in two rows of six, and seemed focused on proceedings throughout, with all members taking notes on what was being discussed. A number of the female members did however appear to be noticeably cold and uncomfortable. With only one per cent of defendants now tried by jury , I felt privileged to have been able to view such proceedings first hand.

Three barristers (counsel) sat opposite the jury (to the judge’s right). One for the prosecution (representing the Crown Prosecution Service), and one for each of the two defendants, each with their own representatives sat behind them. A court clerk sat below the judge’s bench, and the two defendants were held in an open dock opposite the judge and the clerk, accompanied by a dock officer.

I found the trial proceedings to be quite simple to understand, possibly attributable to the fact that it was a jury trial, and hence issues had to be dealt with in such a fashion so as to sufficiently facilitate the jury’s understanding of them.

In conclusion, the Central Criminal Court is evidently not only historically but also a contemporarily important court, which I found to be adequately accessible for members of the general public. The people whom I encountered that worked in the building were approachable and very forthcoming with information. The actual viewing facilities themselves were not particularly comfortable, however, I do not suppose that they are designed for their comfort, but rather for their functionality.

Following this initial visit to the Central Criminal Court I would almost certainly feel confident in either returning one day, or when visiting other courts to view proceedings.

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