Saturday, January 21, 2006

Day 5: Friday 20th January

Friday 20th January

With another (short) day of legal arguments planned, the jury absent and reporting restrictions again in place, the private peep show into the English legal system continues.

My opinion is that none of these discussions will change anything during the present trial, but they may well become very significant in the future. Yesterday I passed a number of hastily scribbled notes to my counsel via our solicitor, a smashing, efficient and friendly Liverpudlian lady, who sits in the back row of seats.

The court layout, by the way, is as follows:

Mark and I sit in the dock at the back, behind glass screens - clear in front of us, smoked between us - and the public/press gallery to our left. With us are two security guards, who are finding our case much more interesting than the usual stuff they deal with. In front of us are three rows of long green padded benches and pine desks, each with several TV monitors. The back bench is occupied by the solicitors, who are often busy making notes. In front of them sit the 'junior' barristers - not necessarily younger, the term relates to status, not age. Their bewigged heads nod or shake very slightly from time to time as they follow the arguments intently. Their bench is piled high with files and stacks of case notes bound up with thin red ribbons. All of us have the same plastic water cups.

(Left: Court scene - thanks to Centaur)

The next row up is occupied by the senior barristers, all 'top silks', officially known as Queen's Counsellors. Mark and I have one each, one speaks for the prosecution. One by one they stand and address and from time to time argue with 'the court' (i.e. the Judge). The TV and film cliche of them leaping to their feet with objections hasn't been seen at ll yet. Perhaps that will change when we get to the cross-examinations next week.

In front of them, facing us over a smaller table, sit the court note-taker and another barrister. I must admit I've no idea what her job is. The usher - a calm and quite authoritative man who has clearly been doing the job for years - sits just on the edge of the public gallery, and occasionally pads quietly around the room to deliver notes.

The jury box is to our right, twelve separate green seats behind the same narrow wooden ledges that we have in front of us. A large TV sits in front of them. The witness box - so far only occupied once, by the paid provocateur Jason Gwynne - is to our left near the front of the court. The room is dominated by the higher, pine panelled bench occupied by the judge, his notes, law books and TV monitor.

Nature notes

The judge wears a red robe, trimmed with black. I believe it's only the Law Lords who get the bits of ermine fur. This used to come from stoats killed by gamekeepers during particularly hard winters when they turn white to match the snow. I wonder if this is still the source, or if they now use something synthetic? In general I'm in favour of tradition but I'm even more in favour of stoats keeping their own coats. It must be forty years since my grandfather showed me a gamekeeper's 'gibbet' on a woodland walk in Suffolk. The corpses of stoats and their weasel cousins hung on the barbed wire strand on top, in various stages of sickly-sweet decay. The crime that led this persecution by gintrap and gun was the taking of the eggs and chicks of pheasants. Reared for the shooting pleasure of, among others, lawyers blowing away some of their fees. These days such capital punishment for 'vermin' is nothing like as common. Splendid, as an enthusiastic cook and carnivore I'm all for a bit of rough shooting, but I'd rather think of a young pheasant being taken by another wild animal than being fattened up until it can hardly fly and shot by asomeone who doesn't even intend to eat it.

Back to the court - the judge makes more notes than anyone else. Perhaps a couple of times a day something leads him to make some dry and genuinely witty comment which raises smiles or gentle laughter. Even though I know he won't hesitate to send us down if we're found guilty (in fact, under the Act in question, he has no choice but to give us at least six months each), I thinkhe'd make a good guest for dinner. He must certainly have seen some fascinating, important and high profile cases in a career long and distinguished enough to become a top Recorder in a major provincial court like this.

Career choice

Had I so chosen, I could have been out there with the lawyers, probably on a grand a day (that's about $1,600 to North American readers), rather than sitting in a seat more usually occupied by the scum of the earth. But I chose not to, having been told very clearly that the price of an entry ticket into that privileged world was to keep my head down and hold my tongue about the mortal dangers threatening, among other things, the traditions, practice and future of that very same legal system.

Certainly none of this lot would be here in a British Islamic Republic governed under Shari'a law. And the three foot high royal crest that dominates the beige curtained wall behind him would go as well, or at least be radically changed. The crest is, of course, held up by a lion and a unicorn, so the lion - being a representation of a living creature with a soul - would have to go. I'm not sure about the unicorn, as it's a mythical creature not a real one. The Latin mottos would go, because the equivalent ritual/religious language in Shari'a law is an almost equally ancient version of Arabic. On the quarters of the coat of arms, the harp would vanish, since music is banned under the Wahhabi versions of Islam which are the ones which are at present winning the struggle against both the West and other versions of their own religion. The assorted lions and leopards would get their throats cut too.

Get home mid-evening and moments later get a call to tell me that my co-defendent Mark Collett has just has his flat window smashed. Immediately call our security team in Leeds. Poor sods had thought their work was over for the week, but clearly not. The most shocking thing is that, for various reasons, I have no doubt whatsover that this is not the work of political or minority opponents, but of one or two people who - until very recently - were supposed to be on our side. Lowest of the low!

Still, on the positive side, a week that started with a series of crises (more in the right place at the right time) in which the court case was literally the least of my worries has produced some of the best and most useful publicity we've ever had. And that's been from the prosecution evidence!

Next week it's our turn - and although I'm almost overwhelmed to be back home with my family, I can't wait!