Books

I was an Old Bailey judge. Here's what really goes on in court

A new book by former Old Bailey judge Wendy Joseph QC lays bare the intricacies of the legal system.

Illustration: Paul Hoppe

For the last 10 years I’ve sat as a judge at the Old Bailey. Now retired, I can look back at those years, pick up a pen and write about them. Almost every case I did there had a dead or nearly dead body in it. Murder, manslaughter and the infliction of appalling injury was my daily diet and a daily world of grief for victims and defendants, for their families and friends.

Yet almost every terrible incident was utterly needless, utterly pointless. Put like that, you might wonder why anyone does my job. But I could put it another way. I could say that day after day I presided over a courtroom where 12 people like you sat as a jury, weighing the evidence, searching for the truth. Each juror had left behind their own problems to sort out the mess that others had made of their lives. Each case brought its own characters to be understood, motives to be unravelled, plans and methodology to be exposed. Each involved human good and bad. Sometimes very bad.

The world of the courtroom is one in which any of us could find ourselves; as victim, witness, juror, or even – given the wrong circumstances – as defendant. Yet many people have only a foggy idea of what happens there. That isn’t their fault. It’s ours – the lawyers. So I have written this book to let daylight in on the system

The law sounds complicated but it is possible to make it accessible to everyone. In this belief, I’ve begun the book with a group of schoolchildren, exploring the courtroom for the first time. Over the years I held many such visits. They were always a learning curve for me as well as for the kids.

After this introduction I have told six stories centred on worrying aspects of crime – knives, gangs, sexual abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. I’ve drawn on the hundreds of trials on which I sat, in order to say something true about them. I’ve tried to show what it feels like to sit in judgement on another human being; to look into the eyes of a 17-year-old and send him to prison for life, to see the grief of parents following the way that led their child to the mortuary slab, to help still-shocked witnesses recount what they saw and to guide the jury through the pitfalls of the law.

In the first story, Fiery Furnace, 16-year-old Daniel runs into a blind alley from which he will never find a way out. Then as the trial unfolds, we see how the attack on him came about. The court – and the reader – has to think about what makes boys carry knives, and what we might realistically do to stop them. 

In Amidst the Alien Corn, Ruth’s mother struggles to avoid giving evidence against her daughter for trying to kill her baby granddaughter. The trial takes us deeper and deeper into what motivated Ruth and the dreadful hidden history that lay behind her actions. The law is firm but it shouldn’t be implacable – is this a case where the judge should find a way to be merciful as well as fair?

The Vale of Tears takes us into the dock with 21-year-old Jude as he tries to make reparation for having killed his best friend. This story explores the world of the gang and what makes it so attractive to even a decent young man.

Unlawful Killings by Her Honour Wendy Joseph QC is out now.

Then there is The Offering, a story about the tragic consequences when a Muslim father vows to keep his teenage daughter in the way of life he has always followed – and the effect on the whole family, especially the younger siblings caught up in the trial process. The question of how to be fair to child witnesses is one with which the courts have long struggled.

The Good Soldier offers a look at domestic violence and the issues it involves when fatal and terrible acts are caused not by wickedness but by mental illness. How should a judge deal with this, especially when that mental illness is caused by a defendant’s exposure to the horrors of war in the service of  his country? 

Finally there is an account of the power of the jury to do what they believe is right, regardless of the judge and the law – and whether this power is a safeguard for our system of justice, or a threat to it. If it all sounds grim, there’s plenty to smile about too, as you come to know the barristers and their foibles, my fellow judges, and the wonderful staff who support the whole system. 

So this book is certainly not about me – it’s about the courts which are there to serve us all. It’s about what the law can and can’t achieve. Above all it’s about the people who fill the courtroom – whatever their role in it might be.

You can buy Unlawful Killings from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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