Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Wednesday, 8 February 2006

One day in court

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News in Northampton

In a week-long series on respect in one English town, the BBC News website spent a day in a magistrates' court watching those on the frontline in the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour.

Some defendants' names have not been used for legal reasons.

Northampton magistrates court
Northampton magistrates' court is next to the town's police station

The magistrates' court in Northampton is next door to a large police station.

One of the first things you notice is how clean and tidy the place is - smoking appears to have been banned throughout the building.

Security is also fairly tight, but the court's younger clientele nevertheless tend to treat the whole experience as a fun day out - a chance to catch up on gossip with their mates.

On the court steps, a group of teenagers have their digital cameras out and are taking a few pictures of themselves for posterity.

1030 GMT - COURT THREE

First up in Court Three is a lanky 19-year-old in a black tracksuit and hooded top.

The prosecution alleges he was part of a gang of about 30 youths causing trouble in a local shopping centre.

I will smash the court up in a car. You watch me!
Man, 68, jailed for driving while disqualified
He denies being drunk and disorderly and vandalising a car, but owns up to possession of cannabis, which was found on him after his arrest.

He told police he thought the drug was legal - a common mistake, his solicitor argues, which she says is largely the fault of the media.

A date will be set for the teenager's trial, but his solicitor wants the bail condition banning him from the shopping centre - on the grounds that he might commit further offences - dropped.

She argues, with impeccable logic, that "it is possible to be drunk and disorderly anywhere".

The magistrates retire to consider their verdict.

1040 GMT

The youth fidgets and glances around the room. There is no dock in Court Three, only a witness box, so defendants sit on a row of chairs facing the magistrates. The room is light and airy and feels more like someone's office than a court of law.

He turns round and flashes a smile at his mother, who is sitting, grim-faced, at the back of the room, a large leather handbag perched defensively on her lap.

The time starts to drag. The lawyers and court staff chat and swap jokes about other cases.

Vandalised car in Northampton
Car vandalism is a problem in some parts of Northampton

After about 10 minutes, there is a loud knock and everyone rises as the three magistrates sweep back into the room.

They refuse to drop the bail conditions and fine the teenager £100 for cannabis possession, with 14 days to pay.

It would have been more if he had pleaded not guilty, chairman of the bench Catherine Nicholls tells him.

This all seems fine by the teenager, who strolls calmly out of the court after first confirming he understands what has been said to him.

His mother, clearly relieved that the ordeal is over, catches his solicitor's eye and breaks into a broad grin.

1115 GMT

Next up is 68-year-old pensioner Charles de Fonseca, charged with driving while disqualified.

So traumatised is he at having to appear in court he is refusing to enter the building, explains his solicitor, Andrew Hopkin.

There is a short adjournment while Mr Hopkin attempts to coax his client, who we are told suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, into the court house.

1125 GMT

When Mr de Fonseca eventually appears, he does indeed appear to be in some distress. He is breathing heavily and a look of panic crosses his face when he is asked to plead by the young clerk.

"Guilty," whispers Mr Hopkin in his client's ear.

The pensioner has made the effort to wear a shirt and tie. But his tough, weather-beaten face - and the faded tattoos scrawled across his knuckles - suggest he is not quite the timid first offender we might have been expecting from Mr Hopkin's initial description.

And it quickly becomes apparent that the source of his anxiety is not so much the crowd of people standing outside the court but the very real prospect he will be sent to jail.

This is not the first time Mr de Fonseca has been arrested for driving while disqualified, it appears.

His driving record is appalling. The prosecution reads out a list of convictions stretching back to the early 1980s. In 2001 he was banned from driving for 10 years. Two further bans have followed.

Mr Hopkin, in mitigation, says his client has never endangered anyone's life in a car, and only agreed to take on the driving job to boost his meagre pension. But even Mr Hopkin concedes a prison term cannot be ruled out.

He pleads with the bench to at least consider adjourning the case for a pre-sentence report. His client has been to prison before and it has not acted as a deterrent, he argues.

When the magistrates turn down this request, he decides to go for broke.

1145 GMT

The reason his client is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr Hopkin says, is that he worked as a mercenary in Africa and Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

The old man is tormented, in particular, by the memory of an incident from the early 1960s involving a young girl who "had grenades strapped round her waist by enemy soldiers".

He has struggled to adjust to life in "civvy street" and is an alcoholic. He has also suffered a series of heart attacks. If he is sent to jail he might lose his accommodation and his only companions in life, his two dogs.

The three magistrates listen patiently to this latest twist but, after retiring for further deliberation, they hand down their verdict - five months in jail.

1220 GMT

Mr de Fonseca is too much of a risk to the public to be given a community sentence, Mrs Nicholls explains.

The man has watched the proceedings with mounting alarm, but he remains remarkably calm as the decision is handed down.

So you just hang about doing nothing? Do you help your mum around the house?
Magistrate to a youth before her
"May I say something?," he asks, getting to his feet.

"I was in prison last year for driving while disqualified. I have never intentionally endangered anyone's life in all the years I have been driving. I have been driving since '52 and I have never had an accident."

His words are measured - as if he has worked the speech out in advance - but it is difficult to see where he is going with it.

He explains how he carried on driving after being arrested for drink driving in the early 1970s because he was "a hard-headed man", and how he was arrested "here, there and everywhere" for driving offences.

Then finally, as two police officers appear to take him to the cells, he reaches his point.

"When I get out I am going to buy myself a Jaguar," he explains to Mrs Nicholls.

"And smash that thing up into this court house."

He continues shouting as he is handcuffed and bundled from the room.

"I will smash the court up in a car. You watch me!" he says.

Mrs Nicholls watches him go.

"Would anyone like a break? I think that would be a good idea," she says.

1400 GMT - COURT SIX

After lunch - with the court building virtually deserted - Court Six, for the duration of the afternoon at least, is a youth court.

The atmosphere is less formal than in an adult court, with parents allowed to sit next to their offspring in the witness box.

The magistrates act more like social workers, as they attempt to push the young defendants away from a life of crime, using a finely calibrated combination of penalties, incentives, action plans and orders.

The first defendant, a 15-year-old youth, shambles into court with his mother in tow and sits in the witness box fiddling with his baseball cap.

He looks embarrassed to be the centre of attention. His lawyer explains that he is "a shy lad".

The case against him dates back 12 months - so much for fast-track youth justice - and seems to revolve around fairly minor damage to a set of double doors.

"What have you got to say for yourself?," asks chairman of the bench Anne Mackley, a reassuring figure in tweed.

"Do you want me to stand?", the youth replies, a little startled to be addressed by the magistrate.

Mrs Mackley continues: "You are not at school at the moment, what do you do with yourself all day?"

"Go out with my friends who have left school," the boy says.

Mrs Mackley: "What do you do?"

"Not a lot. Wait until school finishes."

"So you just hang about doing nothing? Do you help your mum around the house?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you make your bed on a morning?"

The teenager nods.

Mrs Mackley: "Do you do the washing up?"

"No. Not the washing up."

"What about the garden? You're a big strong lad. Do you help your mum with the gardening?"

"I did when it was the summer."

"What's wrong with now?"

"It's cold."

"So you just tuck yourself up by the fire?"

The teenager nods.

Mrs Mackley asks him about his plans to train as a builder before granting him an absolute discharge, but warning him he will be back in court if he breaks an earlier referral order.

1530 GMT

During one of the many breaks in the proceedings Mrs Mackley, who has been a magistrate for 26 years, tells BBC News she sees herself fulfilling the same role as a concerned parent.

"If they had listened to their parents in the first place they might not find themselves here," she explains.

The next defendant, a shaven-headed 17-year-old who admits allowing himself to be a passenger in a stolen car, is questioned about his ambitions to be a chef.

There is just time for Mrs Mackley to deal with a couple of adult cases from neighbouring courts before proceedings are brought to a close, and the court building locked up.



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