‘CAN you sign the visitor’s book?’ asked the Sheriff of the City of London, Peter Cook. ‘You don’t have to but we won’t let you out if you don’t!’ I think he was joking but you can never be too careful when faced with the full might of the law. And you face it nowhere more magnificently than at London’s Central Criminal Court, aka the Old Bailey.
I was there to have lunch with the judges, a process that starts by arriving at a discreet back gateway off Ave Maria Lane at 12.30. I am then greeted by the sheriff and his wife in the apartment they live in ‘over the shop’ as it were and, as we sip a drink, the judges themselves start to arrive, fresh from court and in full regalia of robes and wigs. It is bizarre to say the least to mingle with them as they chat about everything except the case they are hearing.
Then, at 1pm, I am paired off with a judge to walk down to the dining room and a seat at a long table that holds all the judges, some magistrates (whose cases have reached the Old Bailey on appeal) and three guests. We are efficiently served a meal of fish cake (it’s Friday) veg and boiled new potato, followed by chocolate mousse and a cheeseboard with coffee. It always takes no more than 45 minutes, so the judges can be back in court by 2pm on the dot.
And what did we talk about? Well, it goes without saying that no judge is going to blurt out anything very sensational over lunch, even if the white wine is poured freely (though I don’t know that any of them were actually drinking it – even those not due back in court). I did ask two questions of a legal nature. Why don’t victims have lawyers in the same way the accused do, to oversee the police? (The police, after all, are there to gather evidence, not look after the rights of the victim as many have found to their cost.) ‘Expense,’ was the reply but the Crown Prosecution Service was originally supposed to be independent of the police, although that is now no longer the case, one judge noted with a sigh.
And the big one: should drugs be legalised? Surprisingly, the senior judge I asked freely admitted it would slash crime. In proper judicial style, however, he went on to tell me that he didn’t know what his opinion was on the matter as it was such a complex issue. Anyone who assumes judges are all members of the ‘flog ‘em’ brigade might find that answer surprising, but I suppose it’s comforting to know a judge approaches such questions with an open mind. That, after all, is his job.
After the lunch, I had the opportunity to hear a case. As the judge entered, we all stood. It was remarkable to see the face that had sat genially across from me at lunch, swapping pleasantries, come into court. As he sat down, his eye caught mine and a cold stare froze my smile of recognition. That had been lunchtime; this was work. A chill ran down my spine. Remind me never to find myself in front of a judge at the Old Bailey – unless it’s for another lunch.