However, this means I only see “air-side” in the courts for one brief period a year. Most of the time we see alteration in the familiar things around us so slowly that it is barely perceptible. This, however, is rather like meeting an old friend after a year and noticing that he or she really is older.
Another thing I like to do in the summer is watch old episodes of the Star Trek family. This year, once we were back from the hols, I settled down to The Next Generation and one particular episode that I have enjoyed before entitled “Remember Me!” In it, Dr Beverly Crusher, the ship’s doctor, starts to notice that people aboard the ship are disappearing but those left are unaware of it. Eventually she is left alone. Even the universe has disappeared. The explanation is that she has been trapped in a warp bubble created by her precocious son and is not aboard the real starship at all.
I only record this because I began to think the same thing had happened to me when I was sitting. Everything seemed to be disappearing around me and nobody appeared to notice. The usher’s coffee delivery went last year, as did the service of meals at lunchtime. Now the coffee and milk had gone, as, indeed, had the usher.
A trainee clerk informed me she was acting as both clerk and usher. She looked as nervous as I did. Inside court, I failed even to notice the now permanently absent paralegals who used to sit behind counsel. Indeed, I was rather surprised to see a dock officer. At lunchtime most of the judiciary seemed to be missing and I was told that the catering facilities were disappearing altogether shortly.
Afterwards, I sat on an appeal from the Magistrates’ Court, together with two Justices, who told me all these things had disappeared from their court some time ago. We tried an interesting appeal about a very courteous foreign man who had been disqualified from driving for amassing too many penalty points. Sadly, he told us that his right to legal aid had gone, and he was not entirely sure whether he actually had a valid ground of appeal at all.
The Magistrates’ Court had lost the notes of the original hearing, but the point seemed to be whether the relevant date was the one on which he had committed the offence or the date his conviction was recorded. Not being as familiar with the intricacies of road traffic law as once I was, I enquired if the court I was sitting in had either Stone’s Justices’ Manual or Wilkinson’s Road Traffic Offences but was told the best that could be done was that there might be one or other of them in the library. There was not. One of my Justices said she thought she could remember the answer from a recent training course, but I felt that might not be sufficient. We adjourned the case and I began to understand how Dr Crusher felt.
Next morning I put my head round the court door from my adjoining Judge’s Chambers and found no-one there at fifteen minutes past ten. The court was scheduled to sit at ten o’clock. I wondered if counsel, the court staff, the defendant, the dock officer had all disappeared. This was, however, a false alarm. In dribs and drabs they all arrived with a variety of excuses. Towards the end of my sitting I had a very charming student with me who was doing what is still called marshalling. She sat with me on the Bench and generally kept my papers tidy. I felt she would probably benefit from an absence from me for at least the lunch hour, so asked the barristers in front of me if they might take her to the Bar Mess with them at lunchtime. “It’s gone,” I was told.
I am now imagining what will have disappeared next year without anyone noticing: the entire courtroom staff , the judges, the defendants or perhaps the whole lot. Certainly the value of our fees represented by inflation will have vanished since there will be no increases. And so, in this Lord Chancellor’s warped bubble, does he ever ask himself why any defendant should take this court thing seriously, when nobody else now does?
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.