Recently, I asked a mini-pupil what she had made of the experience. I expected her to say something like ‘it was very boring’, or ‘why was the case taking so long?’ In fact, the question she asked was ‘why is there so much waiting?’ I gave her the stock explanation, but thought to myself that somehow it was unsatisfactory. Next day, I had to leave court for a hospital ‘procedure’. I was told to arrive there at 10.30am and that the procedure would take half an hour. I did arrive at 10.30am and the procedure did take half an hour although, sadly, the two time periods were not aligned. It started with a series of excuses about the lack of nurses and moved to the explanation that there wasn’t a room. By midday I noticed that several nurses seemed to lack an immediate job and I could see three open doors revealing vacant rooms.
I enquired of the senior sister who told me that she had ‘better tell me the truth’. This was that they were having a great deal of difficulty in getting the pharmaceutical department to send out the medication shortly to be plunged into my circulatory system. They too were understaffed and in any event the hospital was of sufficient size to mean that it was an empire in which one satrap did not cross into the territory of another. I went from bad temper to resignation then to boredom and finally numbness.
Whilst recovering in the procedure room afterwards, at 7pm, with a surprisingly decent cup of coffee and a chicken sandwich, I wondered whether users of the court system had an experience that was any different from mine at the hospital: huge amounts of delay accompanied by increasingly thin explanations for what was occurring. Nowadays, in short cases, the inevitable explanation is that the CPS has not attended to a million things and the witnesses, including the defendant, can only spare us very specific amounts of time at their convenience. In long cases, the prosecution inevitably has numerous outstanding disclosure duties to perform and the defence is not feeling overly prepared itself.
‘Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen’
– Amy Winehouse
However, my day at the hospital did at least allow me to see some of the factors causing delay to which over-familiarity with the legal system had blinded me. First, it is not what you are waiting for but whom that matters. On days when the consultant is performing the actual procedure it happens in the appointed place at the appointed time. When a nurse is doing it, it is at the whim of the tidal flow of an imperial entity. Going privately gives you a step or two up on the ladder but, on the hospital game board, this only gets you to the square that gives you sandwiches, coffee and biscuits.
The legal system is similar but with a food chain something like this: the jury, having been bullied, mistreated, ignored and patronised for centuries, is now sacrosanct in the system. A note from the jury is a summons to Mount Sinai. Next is the convenience of the prosecution witnesses. Professional witnesses, the complainant and those suffering from disabling conditions come very much first, but even an ordinary full-throttled moaning one is likely to have the court’s ear. Who wants to have to resort to the hearsay provisions in dubious circumstances? Defence witnesses are better treated than before although they may not detect it. Next comes the usher.
Although this often underrated and overlooked official would not claim the distinction, the cognoscenti appreciate that the usher, like a clerk, sergeant-major or scout at the ancient universities can make a deal of difference to his or her governor’s life. Somewhat lower than expected in the ratings is the judge: High Court, Resident, Circuit Judge and Recorder, although the Recorder really ranks no higher than prosecution counsel. Defence advocates are just a pace behind. The defendant is bottom, unless in person, when his status will veer up and down the range according to his volatility. And then there are last-minute entrants, such as dock officers, security staff and ‘listing’ who can gallop like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse into any part of the mosaic. The court clerk is literally nowhere, sadly.
Having completed this analysis, I folded my arms behind my head, strictly against advice, and allowed the infused nutrients to give me their succour and ended with a thought that had occurred to me many, many times before. Our medical consultant cousins still have it mighty cushy.