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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 01:24 GMT 02:24 UK
Curtain rises on late night justice
Late-night courtroom graphic
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By Christine Jeavans
BBC News Online in Bow Street Magistrates' Court

Friday evening and the ever-busy streets of Covent Garden were beginning to fill with people out for a night's entertainment in the bars and venues of the capital's Theatreland.

Men in bow ties accompanied by women in silk shawls were enjoying a pre-ballet drink ahead of the evening's performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House.

But just across the road, the cool, oak-panelled arena of Bow Street Magistrates' Court was also filling for an opening night of a rather different kind.

The scene was set for the first late-night court session in England and Wales, a pilot scheme announced last year in an attempt to speed up this preliminary part of the criminal justice system.

Come curtain up at 1800 BST, the only problem was that while most of the cast - judge, solicitors, prosecutors, parole officers - were present, the defendants were not.

Session delayed

The court clerk explained that the Securicor van carrying them from police custody was stuck in traffic - one hazard of starting proceedings at the height of the rush hour.

Eventually, as the orchestra of the Royal Ballet would have been tuning up, it was announced that the defendants had arrived and the court session could begin.

All had been arrested in the preceding 24 hours or so, on charges ranging from theft to deception to criminal damage - a normal cross-section of offences, along with other "street crimes" for this court to deal with during more regular office hours.

The defendants appear one by one in the iron-railed dock set at the centre of Court 1, otherwise furnished in polished wood and calming pale green decor.

Most had no permanent home and one gave his address as "the doorway of Books Etc on Piccadilly".

First up was a short and stocky 36-year old Glaswegian who pleaded guilty to being drunk and abusive to staff at the homeless hostel where he was staying.

The duty defence solicitor told the court that his client had a drinking problem that he was trying to control. District Judge Christopher Pratt decided the day the Scot had spent in the cells would serve as his fine and freed him.

Anything that speeds up justice is to the benefit of society but justice is not to be sacrificed on the altar of speed

Julian Young
duty solicitor
Next came a 19-year-old Nigerian business studies student who was accused of a money-making enterprise which would not win him much praise from his tutors.

He was charged with attempting to buy 562.50 worth of clothes from a department store using a credit card whose rightful owner had reported it missing in the post.

The student looked anxious as he pleaded guilty. His solicitor asked for a community sentence as he had never been in trouble with police before and had apparently found the credit card in the street.

The judge agreed that a community penalty seemed best and bailed him for sentencing at a later date.

Also pleading guilty was a vulnerable-looking girl who seemed much younger than her 19 years.

Last chance

She fidgeted and tapped the rail in front of her as the court heard she had been picked up in the past for similar cases to the shoplifting and drug-taking charges she was now facing and was already under a deferred sentence.

The judge warned the youngster that she was "undoubtedly on your last chance" before bailing her on condition of a nightly curfew and that she stayed out of central London.

The next case to be heard highlighted what some see as potential problems with this experimental attempt to speed up justice.

The young man in a grubby Simpsons T-shirt was sporting a fading black eye and had a bruised cheek.

He was up on a charge of smashing a pane of glass at the Trocadero shopping and entertainment centre and being abusive to staff there - although he alleged he was assaulted and robbed.

They are in court just hours after the offence - the guilty are dealt with asap and defendants who can argue a case for bail can be released rather than spending another couple of days in a police cell

Nazir Afzal
Assistant Chief Crown Prosecutor
Opting to represent himself, he rattled off his name, date of birth and address and decided to plead not guilty - the only such plea of the evening.

Justice Pratt suggested it might be in his best interests to have a solicitor. The young man declined. The judge tried again. "I don't want one," said the defendant, "just put me on bail, I'll sign on at the police station twice a day if I have to".

Eventually he was persuaded that professional representation would be to his advantage and he exited with Julian Young, one of the three duty solicitors in the court.

Outside court, Mr Young said cases such as this were a cause for concern because defendants could get tired and muddled.

Difficult decision

"This man may want to change his plea tonight - but he's being asked to make a difficult and important decision, late in the evening," he said.

"He might not be able to give proper consideration to advice.

"Anything that speeds up justice is to the benefit of society but justice is not to be sacrificed on the altar of speed."

But Assistant Chief Crown Prosecutor, Nazir Afzal said late night sittings were to the advantage of defendants - as well as witnesses and victims.

"They are in court just hours after the offence - the guilty are dealt with asap and defendants who can argue a case for bail can be released rather than spending another couple of days in a police cell."

Seven defendants were processed in the first hour but as the court rose for an interval at 2015, cases from Friday evening were beginning to trickle in - and it was clear the performance would continue well into the night.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The latest initiative is to fast-track suspects straight off streets and into court"

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See also:

15 May 02 | UK Politics
Pilot scheme tests longer court hours
10 May 02 | UK Politics
Courts cut delays in youth cases
17 May 02 | England
Late night legal history
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