Home > Comment, Personal > My first week as a journalist – work experience day 1 – Court

My first week as a journalist – work experience day 1 – Court

It was with mixed emotions that I began my first week of work experience at a newspaper. Those who have read my blog a little will know that I have occasionally written for local websites and magazines, but a regional newspaper was a massive step up for me, so naturally I was very excited. This excitement I have to admit was tainted slightly by the fact I had to get up at 6am on a Monday morning, something totally unheard of of for me unless I’ve been going on holiday. The reason for this is that for my first experience of newspaper journalism I had to travel to Newport, South Wales, for a week at the South Wales Argus, the first newspaper which had work experience slots within an hours travel from Bristol.

After the journey however, I now know that although it only takes 40 minutes by train from Bristol Temple Meads station, my total daily commute would be a lot longer. When you include getting to Temple Meads from Montpelier, then waiting for my connection and finally the walk from the station to the newsroom, the journey time was approximately two hours from leaving my front door! But for a taste of professional journalism I was willing to make the sacrifice.

On getting there, signing in, being allocated a desk etc. etc. I was told that I would be accompanying Chris to court for a series of verdicts that were due out that day, one in a very big case involving the fraud of an eighty-year-old lady of over £50,000! So here it was, an hour in and I was already on my way to court.

I have been warned about the ambivalence of court reporting before and knew that it wasn’t all going to be fun and games. Although some cases are bound to be very interesting, informing an observer about the various felonies these people have committed, there are also long stretches of sentencing, barristers droning on in legelspeak, feedback from the jury, and all the tiny minutiae of courtroom etiquette that have to be adhered to that are not generally shown in films or on TV.

The first of my illusions to be shattered was that court is a well-ordered place. The judge, Stephen Hopkins QC, for the main trial, The Courtney Case as the Argus were reporting it, was over half an hour late, because, and I quote, “no one had told him he was expected in court this morning at 10am!” So it was late starting to begin with, but we were optimistic for a verdict today because the jury had been out since Friday.

Proceedings were further delayed however, when the judge admitted that one of the case he was meant to be overseeing had been transferred to Cardiff without him knowing, and the one he was expected to be doing couldn’t move forward because he hadn’t received the relevant paperwork! This resulted in four child witnesses (under 16s) having to be sent home for the day. At a time when the government is going on about cutting budgets, maybe they should think about how much money would be saved through efficiency, rather than austerity?

Through reading the previous cutting about the Courtney case, I knew that the couple, Jacqueline and Stephen Courtney, 49 and 52 respectively, were accused of fraud. Whilst posing as pensioner Marion Edna Holland’s carers, they were reported to have not given her change from her grocery and utilities funds, written themselves cheques and then managed to get her to sign over a large amount of shares, the total coming in at over £54,000. After a quick recap, the judge sent the jury off again to deliberate, and I followed Chris through the other courtroom to listen to the sentences as they were being given out. If the jury couldn’t reach a verdict today, Chris informed me that they would find one of the other cases to highlight for tomorrows edition.

I have to admit that at times I was nearly falling asleep. QCs, barristers and judges do tend to haver a wee bit (haver, if you’re not Scottish or familiar with the Proclaimers classic, ‘100 Miles’ simply means ‘to babble’). If you can sit through them discussing ‘personal abode burglary’ and such like you finally get to the really juicy part, the sentencing. This is where the judge gives his verdict, but of course he likes to give the waiting press a few juicy comments, and it is during this two or three minute finale that most of the quotes used in news reports seem to come from.

After a quick break for lunch, Chris went back to Court 2, while I went to speak to the Clerk of the Court in Court 3 about when the Courtney verdict might be due. As I walked in the jury was being crocodile marched into the courtroom, ready to give judgement. This resulted in me dashing like a madman to find Chris, so we could hear the verdict and hopefully the judges sentence.

As part of the review of the case, I had heard the judge run through the original police interview with Mrs Holland – a harrowing experience. She stated that she had thought the two accused were her friends, trusted them, and it was clear from her statement and the questions asked (sometimes asked repeatedly due to her bad hearing) that she was a woman who was on the edge of a mental collapse (a police source later admitted that she now has dementia, although I might have guessed from the transcript). It was with silence that they were found guilty, although I partly expected a round of applause, but I know now that this isn’t the done thing in court. The judge did, say during his sentencing them to four years each, that he felt the jury had made the right decision – so it seems he felt they were guilty as hell! Whatever this says about judicial impartiality, I felt they were too! His crowning comment was “This is the most appalling abuse of an elderly lady. The only true words you spoke throughout the trial were about the substantial effect on her,” followed by “I have sat as a judge for over 20 years in south Wales and before that was a barrister for 13 years. In all that time, you are amongst the most appalling people I have ever met.” As Lister from Red Dwarf would say, “Brutal!”

This was my first experience of justice in the UK, and all told I think it went as well as can be expected. As it stands, I feel a lot could be done to make court more efficient, although without a deeper understanding of the procedures I can’t offer much feedback. Maybe actually letting the judges know what they are meant to be presiding over and making sure everyone has the same paperwork would be a start? Perhaps marching the jury back and forward every time they have a query is a bit senseless and wastes a lot of time? But, without more observation I appreciate this latter is an area where impartiality must be sacrificed for efficient. What is clear is that a lot of crime goes on, even in a small town like Newport, with a full days schedule of sentencing, hearings and verdicts. What I discovered is unusual, and breaks from TV tradition is that these three parts are all distinct. Over the course of a few weeks you get the hearing, then a few weeks later the jury’s verdict is read, then sentencing takes place a few weeks after that. TV gives us the impression it all happens quite quickly, but in fact, from start to finish the whole process can take months. Chris admitted that to witness a sentencing on the day of the jury’s verdict is very unusual, so maybe it was just my lucky day? And if you include any appeal or reparation process involved you can add a month or so to these figures as well. All in all, I will leave further comment until I am a more experienced court reporter.

After getting and writing a couple of picture stories (which today I had the pleasure to see in print!), I got off about 4.55pm and caught my train home – the first bend of my massive learning curve to becoming a journalist myself. Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring…

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