At Crest, we care about understanding how the the criminal justice system works on the ground – not just from a spreadsheet. As part of our staff induction, this means paying a visit to places where justice actually happens. That’s why five of the Crest team went to the Camberwell Green Magistrates Court a few days ago – it was a first for some amongst us! It was a remarkable introduction to the everyday of south London’s justice, which appeared hectic, confusing, yet somehow delivering sentences at an impressive pace.
As we huddled outside the court’s steps just before it opened, our tour started with the (candid?) graffiti on the benches, professing the artist’s return to H.M.P. with a flourish. After going through security, a few A4 pages, printed in font 11 or so, greets the visitor with names and locations of expected defendants. Thankfully, a more readable sign explains which level is dedicated to what: courts, youth courts, witness services, legal aid etc. The building was in good shape, clean and clear of clutter which is more than could be said for some of the people inside it, sadly. Outside Courts 1-4 people drifted about, the distinction between insiders and outsiders only given away by their dress code. As visiting members of the public, we stood out a little, but were not made to feel unwelcome. We have to give it to the court – open to the public does mean exactly that.
What does a magistrates court look like first thing on a Monday morning for a newcomer? Confused and confusing. Camberwell has four courtrooms, each of which had a distinct vibe, despite operating next door to each other on the same floor. This seemed to be mainly down to the personalities of the judges, the clerks and the other staff. The central hall felt pretty chaotic, but order was gradually brought by a series of court managers. They made sense of who was who, patiently asking over and over why people were there, opening and closing what sounded like an infinite series of banging doors. Throughout the courts, district judges towered above us, dispensing their wisdom to all below. At least, that’s what it felt like at first sight. Some subtle signs of magistrates being guided by the prosecution and existing guidelines do become apparent to the watchful eye, but I wondered what it felt like from the point of view of the defendant, parked inside a little glass box. In fact, the whole process was confusing to the novice, and appeared to vary from case to case. None of the seats was marked, nobody introduced themselves, and the proceedings were explained to only one defendant throughout the morning.
The courtrooms gave mixed impressions. On the one hand, they were churning out low-level guilty pleas for charges almost invariably related to drugs and alcohol. One judge was very paternal, speaking formally but respectfully, with staff being all but friendly with the defendant: checking on their benefit claim, cocaine addiction or children. Another was quite cutting, almost rude. Some unspoken understanding also came across as an evident drug dealer was charged with possession for personal use only, an instance where the CPS’s judgement and the evidence at hand took its toll on common sense. It became clear how important a well spoken and well organised prosecutor was, as a slightly less efficient one caused havoc, not having information about previous convictions etc. readily available.
It was sometimes evident that the defendants had very little understanding of the orchestration they were in the middle of: shaking with nerves (drugs?), only partially speaking English and not waiting for their translator. Conversely, some were quite familiar with the proceedings. I can imagine the frustration of police officers, to whom many defendants we saw that morning must have been known as regulars, especially seeing most defendants come out with small fines and suspended sentences. One must balance that apparent light touch with a system which has perhaps been kind to these defendants for the first time only.
The court’s relationship to technology was relatively opaque. One of the courts was dealing with a series of warrant requests first thing, and the amount of paperwork pushed around during the first half hour was astounding. On one hand, the remote video-link connection worked perfectly for a quick hearing, on the other masses of paper were still being circulated, and old laptops held by the hand.
Overall, the courts churned through an impressive number of people and cases in a relatively short space of time. If one considers how the magistrates court connects people who are often completely at odds with institutions, sometimes with little education and for whom the state is an opponent, with people who represent the latter and were spewed out of the most demanding and complex education machine, it is no wonder that there is a significant distance to bridge. For all its faults, and efficiency gaps, Camberwell Magistrates Court dispensed justice at a very quick rate, making do with absent defendants, vulnerable people and savvy offenders thrust in the same bag. This spurs us on to believe in effective and efficient justice that we want to help build.