Bow Street Night Courts Pilot – My Experience

There is Nothing New Under the Sun…..

I took part in the Night Courts Street Pilot when I was a Second Sixth Pupil, in the summer of 2002. I was, at the time, not someone who had any particular caring responsibilities or other difficulties. I was a 24 year old woman, with no children. For about 6 months, two Magistrates’ Courts were open on Friday and Saturday nights to deal with newly-arrested Defendants, which meant that they didn’t have to be held over to Saturday mornings or Mondays, respectively.

I went to the Bow Street pilot scheme, and I understand that Manchester also had a pilot court running.

It was a nightmare, both personally and professionally.

Those cases which were just a waste of time were the better ones. Some went wrong in ways that were significantly worse.

As a pupil, I was “on call” every other weekend and bank holiday. Other than during the pilot, that meant I could be (and almost always was) instructed to go to a Magistrates’ Court on a Saturday morning and do a “First Appearance”, which means applying for bail, taking basic instructions, receiving the initial prosecution papers, and fixing the next court hearing, usually for plea or committal (at the Mags) or first appearance at the Crown Court (if an indictable-only offence).

The pilot kicked off in July or August 2002. It meant that every other weekend, I was on-call for Bow Street Magistrates Night Court on Friday evening, A N Other Magistrates on Saturday morning, and back to Bow Street on Saturday evening. After a full week as a pupil, rushing around the country, and with a similarly-full week on the horizon, it was tiring and tough.

Several weekends I did indeed do the full monty, with 3 extra Magistrates’ hearings over the weekend.

Reasons Why Many of the Bow Street Hearings were a Waste of Time:

  1. The papers didn’t arrive when the Defendant did, because it was out-of-hours;
  2. The papers arrived and the Defendant didn’t (ditto);
  3. The Def was too drunk/high/ tired/other to be able to take part;

then there were the hearings where the Def was sober enough, present, and the papers were also there:

  1. The case needed the Youth Offending Team. “Sorry, not available, come back on Monday”;
  2. The case needed a new PNC printout. “Sorry, come back on Monday”;
  3. The case needed to hear from probation. “Monday”;
  4. The case needed a check with social services / similar. “Monday”;
  5. The case needed information on drugs / alcohol / community service / etc. “Monday”;
  6. A relevant file was in another court / police station / etc. “Monday”.

Worse Than a Waste

There were two cases of mine which went beyond “waste of everyone’s time, energy, and money” and were actually a nightmare. One involved an under-18, so there’s not much more I can say about it.

The other involved an adult Defendant, accused of three robberies. Standard steps went ahead with no more than usual Saturday night time wasting – I took instructions in the cells, filled in the legal aid forms, received the initial papers from the CPS, etc. I had arrived at Bow Street at 5.45pm for a 6pm start, the Defendant had been produced by 6.30pm, and the papers had arrived at the same time.

During the Court hearing which started about 8.30pm, the Defendant had some kind of fit. He ended up jumping the dock, sending files flying and Counsel (including me) diving to the side. The general alarm went off, the court was cleared, all hell broke loose.

The custody staff called the only doctor on duty, a standard police doctor. He arrived at 10pm, said, “he needs a psychiatrist, not a GP” and a psychiatrist was called for. There wasn’t one available. After much phoning around, one said he could arrive by 3am, which was going to be too late for the cells, as the court was closing at 2am.

The Defendant was extremely distressed. The custody staff (who were a really nice lot, at Bow Street) were very worried about him. And nobody, nothing relevant was available or on-call.

So as well as all the other difficulties about “flexible” court hours, in my experience, they just don’t work. Unless there is also massive investment in getting all the usual, necessary services on call (a girl can dream, right?)

Personal Difficulties

It was an unpleasant experience. I was over-stretched, lacking time off, and having to get home at late-o-clock (sometimes I’d finished by 9pm. At least 4 times it was after midnight by the time I was going home). No expenses, including travel expenses, are paid for Magistrates’ Court hearings, so I had the choice of walking home free, dressed in a suit and carrying a work bag, or getting a cab, which I couldn’t really afford.

I was lucky – I lived within extended walking distance of Bow Street at the time, and my then-boyfriend walked over to meet me and escort me home. And, on one occasion, to keep me company in the many hours I was at court after my own lay client had such a horrific episode, which was appalling for him (and scared the living daylights out of me).

If I’d had children, or other caring responsibilities, hadn’t lived within walking distance, hadn’t had a boyfriend who was willing and able to support me, what was then difficult would have become impossible.

Now, for example, I couldn’t do it. Then-boyfriend, now Dearly Beloved, couldn’t drop everything and come and meet me, because he’d be at home looking after our sons while I was working.