Poor Places series 2 – the courtroom

The Guardian, July 18 1995

Mr Bourke is a magistrate of the gentle school, courteous to the point of deference, rather like the old English character actor Wilfred Hyde White with his air of barely suppressed confusion. He sits on his high-backed wooden chair, peering over the top of his spectacles at the ceaseless flow of wretches and rogues through the dock below him and, from time to time, he likes to shake his head and sadly murmur what has become his catch-phrase. “Well,” he says, more or less to himself. “So there it is.”

It is Tuesday morning. Out on the steps of Clerkenwell Court, two long-haired figures with rough hands are tipping Tennent’s lager down their throats. In the foyer, the wooden benches are nearly full: several thick-set young men who sit rubbing the tatoos on their wrists; a tall and elegant black man who is reading a book about advanced motoring; two women with blue anoraks and tired eyes; a good-looking young guy who keeps smiling to himself; and numerous shuffling groups of solicitors and clients, all swapping nods and whispers.

For a little while longer, they are all nameless and shapeless, nothing more than a random collection of men and women, swept off the streets of London, like a sample of ordinary life. For a few minutes longer, they sit and wait, while the security men stand back and watch them with their arms folded across their chests. Then it is 10.30, and the usher appears at the edge of the room and calls out “Terrence Brightley”, and the elegant black man folds up his book and walks away to see Mr Bourke.

Inside the court, the magistrate nods quietly as the unexpected behaviour of Mr Brightley is explained to him. He has been convicted of attacking two police officers who found him selling jewellery on the pavement at Camden Market one Sunday morning, and he is here today to be sentenced. Mr Bourke says he is a great believer in hearing what the complainant has to say, and so it is that while Mr Brightley sits staring at the floor of the dock, the statement of two police officers is read out around his ears: the swear words he yelled at the police woman who asked if he had a licence; the fist he threw into the face of the police man who tried to restrain him; how he screamed at the police woman that she was an ugly cunt and injured her left hand before other officers came and arrested him. Mr Bourke looks at the sheet of previous offences for dishonesty and sighs a little.

Then Mr Brightley’s solicitor stands up and straightens his suit and explains that Mr Brightley has been trying to put his past behind him. He has not been in any trouble with the law now for five years. He has never in his life been in trouble for any kind of violence. The position simply is that he has been trying to improve himself. At the time of the offence, he was not signing on, he was trying to support himself and save money to go to college by selling jewellery and, since he was surrounded by other people who were doing exactly the same thing, he could not understand why he was singled out by the police. Despite this trouble, the lawyer explains, Mr Brightley is still trying to improve himself. Even sitting outside the court, he has been reading about how to improve his driving skills. He knew he faced jail but he was willing to pay compensation and asked to be given a suspended sentence.

Mr Bourke nods towards the lawyer. “Thank you so much for your help in this matter,” he says and then he explains that we really can’t have people abusing and denouncing police officers who are merely trying to do their duty and he asks Mr Brightley if he would stand up so that he can sentence him to 72 days in prison. “Well, there it is,” he whispers, more in sorrow than in anger, and looks up for the next case.

The defendants start to shuttle through the court at speed. It is like watching snapshots of the secret lives of strangers, the kind of lives that normally warrant no mention in a newspaper because they are too small to be noticed, and as they flash by, several things become clear. One is that even though these are the people who clog the columns of the annual crime statistics, they appear in close-up to be far more sad than bad.

Here, now, are the two men who were swilling Tennent’s on the courthouse steps. As they stand in the dock to hear the complaint about them read, one of them sways back on his heels with his eyes shut, only to snap out of his slumber just long enough to save himself from collapsing, before drifting off again, while the other keeps pushing his hand up, looking for attention like an anxious schoolboy. Mr Bourke would like him to wait his turn while he hears the case against them.

They are charged with theft. It is said that they sat next to a man on a park bench and walked away with his mobile telephone. The man soon realised what had happened and went to a public call box, where he dialed the number of his missing mobile. One of the thieves answered, agreed to sell the man back his property and volunteered to meet him in Trafalgar Square, where the man turned up with a police officer, who arrested the pair of them. The man in the dock is still begging for attention. “Very well,” says Mr Bourke and asks him what it is that is troubling him.

“Your lordship,” he says. “We want to say we’re sorry.” He gives them bail, and they totter out.

Here, too, is the shoplifter with his bush of curly black hair tied back behind his ears. He steals relentlessly – 20 pieces of steak from Sainsbury’s, £23 of batteries from Woolworths – but he is constantly getting caught. He is so incompetent that he is causing confusion in the court. He has just been arrested in Sainsbury’s, but it turns out that he is already on bail awaiting sentence for three other offences, to which he pleaded guilty three weeks ago, and that, in the meantime, he was arrested last week with his hands full of shop goods in Kentish Town. Mr Bourke watches his clerk shuffling files and checking dates and peeps over his glasses. “Is this a matter of heroin addiction?” he asks. It is.

Mr Bourke adjourns the shoplifter and finds another young man staggering out of the gaoler’s door and into the dock before him. This one has a white cotton shirt which is liberally smeared with blood and hangs open from his throat to his belly button. There is a fresh gash across his forehead and he sways gently as the gaoler lets go of his arm. “Do please sit down,” says the magistrate, and so he sits, with his arms wrapped around his ribs while Mr Bourke hears how he rode a mountain bike out of a shop in the West End and ran straight into a police car. He is 30 years old, he has a long list of convictions, he has three other offences outstanding and Mr Bourke – who does not need to ask whether this is another heroin matter – remands him in custody for three weeks.

And that is one more thing that becomes clear as the cases come and go: Mr Bourke is there to hurt people. That is all he can do because that is all that the law wants him to do. If he feels sympathetic towards a defendant, as sometimes he plainly does, the best that he can do is to hurt them slightly less. He tries hard to smuggle some compassion into the proceedings when he comes to deal with the good-looking young man who was sitting outside in the foyer with the little smile on his mouth.

Now, in the dock, he does the same. At first, as the case against him is outlined, it seems that this might be a smile of arrogance, a “screw you, what do I care” sort of pose. The prosecution say he was arrested on Euston Station, drunkenly attempting to board a train without a ticket and then threatening to kill the police officer who arrested him, that he was given bail but failed to turn up in court and had to be re-arrested. But the truth about the smile becomes clearer when his solicitor, a small young woman with brown hair, stands up and starts to talk about him.

He has been breaking the law since he was a small boy, she says, and now, aged 17, he has just emerged from his first custodial sentence. He is a solitary man, she says; he was taken into care when he was a child. The reason for this, she explains, is that he was being routinely raped by his own father. For a moment, the young man in the dock drops his head and then, a second later, he looks up again, and now you can see that his smile is not a challenge at all, it is an apology, a kind of helpless shrug.

Mr Bourke shakes his head and explains that even though he might like to give this man a chance by suspending his prison sentence, the law does not allow him to do that for an offender of this age. Then he finds a way through: he gives him a conditional discharge, which means he goes free unless he gets into trouble within the next year. “It has the effect of a suspended sentence,” he says. The young man thanks him, and Mr Bourke gently whispers his favourite phrase.

There is one other thing which emerges as the cases come and go. It is a feeling of overwhelming chaos, pressing at the door of the courthouse. It is there in the defendants who explain that they missed appointments because they have been chucked out of their homes or lost their papers or been attacked in the street or lost their jobs. It is there with the authorities: with the gaoler who says it’s chaos in the cells because Brixton have sent him the wrong prisoner and Wandsworth have sent him one extra; and with the detective who asks apologetically for an arrest warrant for a prisoner who was released from the station by mistake. Even as Mr Bourke tries to finish his list for the morning, more chaos piles into the room: there’s a crack dealer who has just been arrested and swallowed his stash, and a prostitute who is too ill to come in to the dock.

On the courthouse steps, one of the men drinking Tennent’s turns out to be HIV positive. Down the road, there is a little shop that is really a crack house, a book shop selling hard-core porn, a row of phone boxes full of cards offering women for sale, a pub with strippers, a couple of guys selling crack from the bus shelter outside the Thameslink station, rubbish lying on the pavement, people lying on the pavement. An English city in 1995. There it is.