Waste: a parable

By skepticlawyer

As you may recall, I promised — while in London on other business — to cover this trial. I was thwarted in this aim, although not only because the hearing set down for September 5 was a committal, not a trial. In the end, I was thwarted in covering the committal, too, and thereby hangs a tale.

First, however, I was reminded (again) that one should never relay on media reports of legal matters. The stages involved in bringing on a criminal proceeding do not require a degree in rocket science to comprehend. Maybe future court reporters ought to have them tattooed on the insides of their arms, just for future reference.

So, tip one. Always ring the relevant CPS or Fiscal office before heading off across greater London, or wherever. Once I had done so, I learned of the committal and rearranged myself accordingly.

Having caught the tube all the way out to Wood Green Crown Court, I then made my way back to Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court for the committal (I can recommend those day tube passes, by the way; I got good value out of yesterday’s, flitting all over London).

Wood Green Crown Court is a fine Victorian pile of a courthouse, just the sort you can imagine inhabited by the likes of Rumpole. Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court is an awful piece of neo-Stalinist brutalism that, like all architecture of its era (1960s), is falling to bits. The courtroom (upstairs, around a corner, through two sets of doors with broken handles and past a toilet that I was warned one must not ever lock, lest I become trapped in there for all time) was an absurd elbow shape and about a third the size of a primary school classroom (if you can cast your mind back that far). It was, however, the only court equipped for video linkups with the various prisons around London.

Rioter after rioter who had been remanded went through the system, all male, all colours of the rainbow and a mixture of those with priors and no priors. Lots of charges of ‘violent disorder’ rather than ‘riot’, presumably because of the insurance implications. As I noticed when working in the courts in Australia (and have seen since in Scotland), there was a correlation between violent offences against property (‘robbery with violence’) and sexual assaults/domestic violence. There is a decent research paper in that link, I’ll wager. I’ve seen it so much now that I am pretty much convinced of the Roman jurists’ argument that rape and domestic abuse should in part be seen as property crimes (where the property damaged is, of course, oneself, because one owns oneself). Remember, in Roman law, a runaway slave was deemed to have stolen himself: yes, sometimes Ulpian sounds like Robert Nozick.

One of the committals overran its timed slot (mainly because the magistrates had to retire to consider a bail application; that the alleged offender had already breached bail on another matter previously did not augur well for him). He protested volubly when his application was knocked back and had to be removed by prison staff ‘at the other end’, so to speak.

The various London prisons currently take lunch between 12 and 2, which sounds rather cushy, but is actually because there are so many people in remand thanks to the riots that they have to be fed in shifts. This meant the video link was cut at midday on the nose, and we all sloped off for two hours.

We returned to discover that HMP Wandsworth was unwilling to provide a link-up for Mr Alam’s committal because the morning slot had not been used ‘at the appropriate time’. The listings clerk explained that this was because a prisoner had become obstreperous, so delaying the process. The prison became intransigent. Negotiations took place. Other committals were dealt with in lieu. Counsel suggested a court order, but the magistrates declined to make one: ‘we have to deal with Wandsworth in the future’. The listings clerk protested that HMP Wandsworth did this sort of thing routinely, giving everyone the run around. By this time the accused’s parents had turned up in the back of the court, clearly bemused that the prison could get away with treating the judiciary so badly.

‘It took us three hours on the telephone this morning just to arrange to visit him tomorrow,’ I heard the mother say. Then someone at Wandsworth abused the listings clerk, who harrumphed into court having been sworn at. She started to kiss her teeth and then stopped herself. The prisons, it seems, figure they can treat everyone like rubbish.

So the magistrates ordered that the accused be produced the following day, rather than relying on videolink to the prison.

This means he will be transported by Reliance van across the city from Wandsworth to Highbury, for a twenty minute court appearance, then transported back again.

I believe that this is known in the trade as ‘a waste of the taxpayer’s money’ as well as ‘wasting the court’s time’.


  1. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    The magistrates should show more backbone: if they have a way of forcing HMP Wandsworth to spend extra money, I suspect they will come around.

    Such as the way the Kennett Government forced the Vic Police to pay the Tasty Case damages out of its own budget.

  2. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Lorenzo, you had a duplicate comment which I removed.

    In defence of Wandsworth and the various prisons around London, over 1500 people have been charged in relation to the riots and more than 60% remanded in custody (which is about twice what it would ordinarily be). I imagine they’re a bit overstretched.

    Just for clarity SL, which if any of these, was “our” defendant?

  3. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Mr Alam was the one who missed his committal slot via HMP Wandsworth, yes. I saw a great pile of other committals, but not the one I wanted to see. I do know that his trial date will be either September 12 or October 13. In the first instance, I’ll be back in Edinburgh, and in the second, I’ll be in Sicily.

    So no trial report, unfortunately, and a singularly unproductive day.

  4. Davo
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I believe that this is known in the trade as ‘a waste of the taxpayer’s money’ as well as ‘wasting the court’s time’.

    It may also be known as “due process” – ponderous and frustrating as that may seem.

  5. Davo
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    .. but to explain. have never studied the intricacies of judicial “law”, but know a little bit about how animals behave.

    Take away the “process” of judicial law – what are we left with? Dog eat dog?

  6. Patrick
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    Er, yes, Davo, but we are just talking about turning up for Court at the alloted time, with a couple hours delay…?

  7. kvd
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks for trying anyway SL. And the description is very interesting even without a ‘result’.

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