Up in court
Regulars, the dossers and the hookers, chat to each other and ignore the NO SMOKING signs. A worried mother sits next to her teenage son on the wooden bench. Lawyers bearing important briefcases rush into the waiting room and shout out the name of their client. The warrant officer stands there in his shirtsleeves, ticking off the names. "Guilty is it? Ta," he says. All pretty routine, this Monday morning at Clerkenwell magistrates' court.
"I never shouted sieg heil," says the skinhead to the magistrate in court No. 1. "I was shouting things out, but not sieg heil."
"You are a very lucky man that you are not before me for something worse," says the magistrate, obscurely. He has balding white hair, and spectacles perched on a suspicious nose. He sits up there in front of the coat of arms, Dieu et Mon Droit. I wonder how many of these defendants know what that means?
A dosser now stands on the platform surrounded by wrought iron, in the dock on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. O'Brien is of no fixed abode, the clerk informs the magistrate. He sometimes lives in the hotel, where he sometimes works. The magistrate asks O'Brien when he can pay his £100 fine. The defendant replies he takes home £56 a week and he has to pay £7 of that back to the hotel.
"Well, O'Brien. That leaves you £49 for your food. Ten pounds a week. Stand down."
Six men who have been in custody seven months without trial are remanded, again, without bail. A lawyer stands up to say it is scandalous that his client has still not been charged. "Your use of the word scandalous is not really justified," replies the magistrate. This case involves £23 million and 17 defendants.
The next case involves a few bob. William Liddell was found begging at Southampton Row by an off-duty policeman, who gives evidence: "I told him I was arresting him for begging. He said, 'Give me a chance. I've been at Bow Street for the last three days. Saturday's a good day for me. I make a few bob'."
Liddell is asked if he has anything to say and he shakes his head. "Can't you find some way of getting your cider other than by begging for it?" asks the magistrate, fining him a tenner. I didn't even realise begging was against the law.
A woman being prosecuted for soliciting - she has been done three times before - says in her defence that she has since given up prostitution and gone to live in a hostel, Kelly House. She is discharged. "Now try hard, try hard," says the magistrate, as the woman is led out of the dock.
Another skinhead is put on conditional bail and another dosser, guilty of inciting two girls under 14 to commit an act of gross indecency, is given the choice of a £50 fine or 14 days inside. It is a pathetic procession.
Court No. 2, next door, is adjourned at 11.15 am because the defendant, a prostitute who hasn't paid previous fines imposed by this court, can't get here till twelve. Her friend, Joe, is waiting to lend moral support in the public gallery. We go out for a cup of tea in a cafe over the road.
Joe is 22. He came to London from Nigeria eleven years ago. His girlfriend, he says, is writing a book on hookers and he is kind of helping her with her research. He spends a lot of time hanging out in Kings Cross, the downmarket red light zone where an orgasm can be had for a tenner.
The woman Joe is waiting to see in court is the girlfriend, he says, of a mate of his in prison. I ask him what his mate's inside for? "I don't know. Think he's a thief."
Joe has done time himself, in Brixton and the Scrubs. "I swore at the judge," he says. "I just wanted to know what it was like in prison." And what was it like? "Same as being outside. Except you can't go to disco, can't have girls."
I ask Joe what he made of the Brixton riots? He chews on his ham sandwich, takes a swig of tea. "The police down there, they're bad with them, you know," he says. "I used to live in Brixton." Once he got picked up on SUS and spent twelve hours at the Brixton cop shop, he says, before getting released. Doesn't it worry Joe at all, coming along to a magistrates court, surrounded by all this law?
Why should it? he says. He's clean.
"But sometimes when I'm in there I see the cops and they're looking at me. A couple of times I've been followed. A big cop, the one with glasses, he's followed me a couple of ties. But I just come into a cafe, sit down, and after 15 or 20 minutes he'll go away."
He's out of work and it can be hard sometimes, he says, to stay straight when friends come up with money-making plans. "You can get £100 one day dipping [pick-pocketing] and then it's gone the next day. You need some more. You get catch once, twice. Spend all your life in prison. Not worth it, is it?"
It's almost twelve. Walking back to the court, Joe says his friend asked him to come along because she is really worried about not paying the fine. "Do you think she'll get bird, or what?" he asks. I say I doubt it.
Short and thin, she has red hair and pale skin. She smiles nervously at Joe as she takes her place in the dock, and the clerk tells the magistrate she owes the court £117.
He seems a more sympathetic sort of bloke, this magistrate in court two. He'll give her another 28 days in which to pay.
The next defendant, dandruff on his raincoat, advertised Spanish chalet homes in the local paper. "No chalets have in fact ever been put there," says the detective giving evidence. "Everyone has lost their deposit." Defendant is remanded.
Another crowd gathers in the waiting room just before 2 pm, for the afternoon session. A boy is lying full length on one of the wooden benches. A motorbike cop, crash helmet under his arm, stomps past in his black leather boots, then turns and stops, tells the boy to sit up straight. The boy obeys him, but slowly enough not to lose face.
On the next bench, a pinstripe lawyer talks to his client, who looks about 15. The boy has a slack mouth, is slightly cross-eyed and rubs his face all the time. "How are you going to plead?" the lawyer asks him. The boy rolls down his lower lip, shrugs twice. "Guilty?" he says.
"But you aren't guilty," replies the lawyer. "You can't plead guilty if you aren't guilty." (Later this afternoon the lawyer will stand up in court to say that he is waiting on psychiatric reports on his client, accused of aiding and abetting a robbery at a youth club. The magistrate in court one will peer over the top of his spectacles, disbelieving as ever, but he will finally agree to wait and see what the report says.)
After the magistrate in court one has signed a load of warrants for detectives, he deals, yawning periodically, with a long stream of motoring offences, Third of the afternoon is disqualified for a year for dangerous driving and has £86.30 to pay in fines. The magistrate asks if the dangerous driver has a job. No, he replies, I'm unemployed. And what does he do when he is in employment?
"I'm a removal driver."
"Can't you get any job at all?" says the magistrate.
The defendant in the next case is the first one all day to plead not guilty. He is accused of going through lights on red. The policeman giving evidence is in the Special Patrol Group, he has the CO mark on his shoulder. The defendant, a man of around 20, says he saw the police transit van parked by the lights as he was coming up. "I'd seen the van. And I'd hardly go through on red if I'd seen the van, would I? The lights were green, and changed to amber as I went through."
"There is a corroborator too," the SPG man says to the magistrate, who shakes his head. That won't be necessary. "If I'd seen the van why am I going to go through the lights on red?" continues the defendant, throwing his arms round in exasperation. "You're saying I was ten yards away when the light was red?"
"Have you any witnesses to call?" asks the magistrate.
"Wouldn't do much good if I had, would it?"
He gets fined, his licence endorsed, and is led from the dock. A sniggering old man in a stale grey suit, who thinks courts are a spectator sport, nudges me and points.
The sniggerer spends a lot of time in the public gallery. All afternoon he is trying to involve me in his game. Laughing at the magistrate's put-downs, and the inarticulate attempts of the defendants to scrape together some mitigating circumstance. I tell him to shut up. The cases continue.
30 April 1981