Don't forget your mask!
This week’s blog is brought to you by Kelly Sherif – pupil to Anne Richardson
Usually, the Crown courts are bustling places, alive with court staff, Lawyers, reporters and members of the public. Not today…not any day in these times. Today I find myself at the security point with no queue, obligingly unzipping every single compartment of my rucksack so that the officer can scrutinise the objects inside, nothing fantastical, just a laptop, a flask of coffee and a notepad, my wheelie case containing my robes and a pair of high heels.
I am donning my face mask as I walk to the elevator, maximum 2 persons allowed and it’s a one-way system these days, lift up, stairs down.
The robing room is quiet…some days it’s just myself, my pupil supervisor and our opponent, other days there are more Barristers if they are attending trials. The room is large and the tables all set very precisely 2 metres apart.
Most, if not all hearings are attended via CVP these days and I must admit the digital systems are very well orchestrated. The court Clerks seamlessly linking those waiting in the “lobby” into the main court where all manner of discussions take place for effective trial planning and all from the comfort of your own home office…..pets ‘n’ all! And yes, I have found myself having to “disable” my camera whilst my recalcitrant Collie is jumping up at my desk trying to cop an eye full of the OIC’s cat making its also unwanted guest appearance!
We, my colleague and I are here for a trial, three days at least. As we walk into the court room, wearing our masks, there are chairs wrapped with yellow and black tape and signs attached saying “please do not sit here” socially distanced so that no one in the courtroom sits within 2 metres of each other. I am in the press box, in previous days I would be sat directly behind my pupil supervisor so that she can turn around at any point and instruct me. Nowadays, email is the tool of choice. The Barristers’ benches are also less inhabited, only the Barristers that are advocating in the trial are allowed on the benches, whereas hearings before would find Barristers who were ‘up next’, as it were, sat in the preceding rows.
Jurors now sit in individual booths surrounded by Perspex screens that are strategically manoeuvred by masked and gloved court ushers in an attempt to limit any kind of contact. Four jurors at a time are escorted to their permanent (for the trial) position. Every Jury bundle, plastic cup, water bottle and pen hasn’t been touched by an unclothed hand, the risk of a Jury member being absent is not something any court, even more so in these times, wants to risk.
The Judge sits aloft on their bench, this position of height having the utmost benefit during a socially distanced courtroom.
The mask wearing accused sits behind a Perspex screen in the dock accompanied by a distanced but ever-present dock officer, also gloved and masked. The wearing of masks is compulsory in the building, like everywhere in society that is an enclosed space. Only the advocates when speaking are allowed to remove them in the courtrooms, the rest of us sit compliantly acquiescing.
The courts and corridors of Newcastle Crown court are quiet, but behind the scenes trials are being heard again, the process is lengthy with the need for cleaning staff to be at the beck and call of the court staff and make clean again every seat, booth, bench, witness box and table that has been used previously. Nonetheless this is the world we are in right now and one in which all this bizarre behaviour is actually quite normal. The judicial system, from my perspective is functioning, and well! Everyone is doing their best in these times of uncertainty. Life as a criminal pupil is different but by no means horrible, I feel as safe in my work as I do in my home, but remember that should you need to come to court any time soon….don’t forget your mask!