Spectator: A visit to court

I listened to a psychiatrist on the radio this week explaining that, quite often, children begin collecting things -stamps, marbles, football cards and so on-to create order because their real world may be rather chaotic. With their collection, she explained, comes some sense of control.

I suspect she may have something to say about why this week, of all weeks, I chose to spend a lot of it at Winchester Crown Court. This is, after all, the week before we move house and which, brewing up to the end of three different terms, brings with it a really astonishing round of art shows, concerts, parents’ days, sports days and so on. As a friend of mine put it, this time of year ‘is worse than Christmas’. Chaos then-but not in the courtroom.

I began the endeavour because I’m trying to do some of the things I’ve always meant to do before leaving Winchester, among them a visit to the crypt to see the Antony Gormley sculpture, a tour of the cathedral tower and a visit to the law courts. Spurred on by the knowledge that I know one of the barristers acting in a murder case, I took myself off to the courts one sunny morning. And I got hooked.

The court house is suitably intimidating. It’s vast, unattractive, with wide halls, people sitting in hushed groups, spectacular views and, of course, clever, serious, wigged and gowned members of the legal profession. It may seem mildly incongruous to see men and women in wigs ordering lattes in the refreshment room, but that’s just a court novice’s reaction to being the odd one out.

The gowns belong to a club of which I’m not a member. I’m a welcome guest, but I’m not a member and if I’d ever wondered why someone one might don a white coat and pretend to be a doctor, I understand now because I briefly toyed with the idea of buying a black gown. I just want to be one of them. Order, expertise, rules, logic. All of these, in my current universe, seem extremely attractive.

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A few weeks earlier, I went to see the final performance by this year’s RADA graduates, one of whom is my godson. I teased him in the bar afterwards that he’s chosen one of the few professions where you get a round of applause at the end of a day’s work. I also congratulated him on a convincing performance and, as I sat in the court’s public gallery, I wondered if that’s what I was watching below. Great performances? A pat on the back at the end of the day? As one barrister stood to give a rousing summation, he was, in fact, applauded-albeit sil-ently, by the woman sitting next to me.

We hear pathologists and tape recordings and confessions and retractions. The jury never wavers in its attention. The judge sits in isolation in his red chair and red robe. We rise as he enters and leaves. I can only see the back of the wigs-and I can’t see the defendants, who are beneath the gallery-but I can see which team has the most Post-it notes, applied to piles of documents throughout.

My neighbour can’t help reacting to some of what she’s hearing, an emotional response to a scene below that is slowly, excruciatingly, teasing out the facts. And this, of course, is where the skills honed by my godson and by the barrister part company once and for all.

My godson has to convince the audience he’s feeling something. The barrister has to convince the jury to set aside all feelings and only consider the evidence.

I strongly recommend a visit to the public gallery, where the drama is real, the rules are rigorous and very clever men and women battle it out. In this case, a life has been lost, the jury is out and I hope justice will be done-reached by a system which feels very reassuring, especially if you’re finding life a little bit chaotic.

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