2000s >> 2001 >> no-1158-january-2001

Greasy Pole: Court in the Act

Dominic came up the steps from the cells, which were airless and gloomy, and stood blinking and smiling in the glare from the tall windows across from the dock in Court Number One. He smiled because he had long ago learned how useful it was. He knew that a smile could open doors, defuse anger, evade awkward questions about your past. With a bit of luck it might even get you off a charge of shoplifting.

Today was not his lucky day. Looking down on him was a single magistrate instead of the three who usually sat on that bench. This was a stipendiary magistrate—a qualified lawyer paid to dish out what people like Dominic have to call justice. Stipendiaries work much faster than lay magistrates; for one thing they don’t need the Court Clerk forever instructing them in the law or interfering in their deliberations. Operating singly means they never have to endure any tedious arguments about guilt or sentence. In some courts they give out their decisions with intimidating speed.

There is an assumption that stipendiaries are not only objectively infallible but uniformly so. Reality is rather different. A punitive stipendiary can create a type of havoc in the Court. There was one who would sit hunched vulture-like over the bench positively stating his public display of prejudice against offenders. The sentences he handed down, and what he said to the poor wretches in the dock as he did so, showed the hatred he nurtured for anyone who transgressed the sacred laws of property. There was however a marked exception to this; anyone who stole from a public house or an off-licence—even if it was while they were working there in what is called a “position of trust” (as if all employees don’t have to be “trusted” by the employers to make profits) could hope for a lenient sentence. This was because the stipendiary seemed to hate alcohol even more than he did criminals.

Another stipendiary who was notorious for his passion to imprison people surprised everyone in his Court when he allowed a mentally disturbed man to go free on bail. Shortly afterwards the man’s behaviour at his home was disturbed enough for someone to call the police. A policewoman burst through the barricaded door and as she did so the man stabbed her to death.

The magistrate looking down on Dominic was not likely to make such a mistake. He was straight and square and predictable. He always listened carefully to everything said in his Court and his decisions were always strictly in line with the law and the offence he was dealing with. This was not a good omen for Dominic, who had been caught as he was about to leave a shop with a load of CDs in a plastic shopping bag lined with foil to avoid detection at the electronically monitored exit.

The Clerk asked Dominic his name and date of birth and address. He was, he said, of No Fixed Abode. Then the Clerk gabbled a sort of catechism about how Dominic intended to plead and if he intended to plead guilty that would be taken as a plea of guilty and the case would go ahead there and then. Unlike a lot of defendants, Dominic understood this straightaway. A sure way to delay a case is to say you will plead not guilty to the charge; the snag is that if you eventually admit it you will not get the discount on a sentence which Courts can give for a first-time guilty plea. This is part of the government’s strategy to speed up the processing of defendants by the Courts; faster means cheaper.

Dominic was represented by a barrister, a young woman who was keen and caring and clearly captivated by his smile and his posh accent but who now squirmed with embarrassment as he faltered and stuttered that he did not know how he should plead because he had not actually left the shop with the CDs, which meant the Court would have to acquit him of theft. The Theft Act of 1968 was designed to clear up some confusion on this score, after the rise of the supermarkets had killed off the shops where customers were served by assistants who, however much more expensive for the shop, at least prevented shoplifting, which boomed when excited thieves misinterpreted the term self-service. The Act laid it down that the offence of theft was the taking of someone else’s property with the intention of permanently depriving them of it. In the case of shoplifting, after a few test cases, this meant that to make a charge of theft stick the shoplifter had to leave the shop with the stolen goods.

Dominic’s hesitation showed that he was not optimistic about getting away with this. In any case the magistrate curtly informed him that he was misinterpreting the law. So he smiled and pleaded guilty and his barrister sighed with the relief of not having to put so leaky a defence to so stony faced a stipendiary. Just how leaky was revealed by the Crown Prosecution solicitor’s description of the foil lined bag and how when Dominic was approached by the shop staff he had thrown the CDs on the floor. And then came the clincher; he was, she said, “known”—a euphemism for having a criminal record. Just how much of one was apparent when she peeled off from her file a thickish wad of paper which listed Dominic’s attempts to beat the property system through his own unaided efforts. There were 32 previous Court appearances for shoplifting, which represented those which Dominic had not been able to get away with. The stipendiary silently studied the list, as Dominic’s smile faded.

There was not much the barrister could say, except that Dominic was addicted to hard drugs and stole to support his habit—which may not have been true and in any case did not soften the magistrate’s attitude. In fact it seemed to persuade him that a prison sentence was unavoidable, which meant that the case had to be delayed while a Probation Officer wrote a report. “And what about bail?” asked the stipendiary wearily, knowing that the nice barrister would take time in applying, without a shred of realistic hope, for Dominic to be back on the streets and in the shops. Her best efforts were undermined when the magistrate raised his eyes from the list of Dominic’s offences to point out that he operated under 14 aliases and 12 different dates of birth. The gaoler guarding the dock expectantly fingered his keys and Dominic, still smiling, went back down into the unwelcoming cells.

Everyone had done their job. The Court had protected the property rights which this social system is based on. The prosecution had got all their papers in order so that the case against Dominic could be briefly and pointedly put. The magistrate had asserted that capitalism sanctions only one type of theft and that is not the one tried by Dominic. The defence barrister had done her futile best, like a lot of people who are uncomfortable when they are up against the reality of class society, to make the system work in a slightly less inhumane way. Dominic had played his part, with his calculated manipulation of the case, to discredit the whole business. What a pity none of them knew what they were really doing and why and what it means to human society.


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