During my time in Blackpool I had only appeared in front of lay magistrates. Those upstanding members of the local community who the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought were fit and proper persons to dispense justice to their fellow citizens. They often lacked any real understanding of the law and sometimes struggled to assimilate the facts of a case, but I am sure they did their best. Often they had unqualified staff as court clerks who didn’t know the law either. That has all changed now and court clerks have to be qualified lawyers if they are advising the bench of magistrates on legal matters, and the justices of the peace are given much more thorough training.
My move to live in London, driven by the sexist behaviour in my home county and by my love of the theatre, brought me into contact with a different kind of JP, the stipendiary magistrate. They were a fearsome bunch and, at first, I was a little in awe of them. Over ninety per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ courts and the stipendiary magistrates, whether a solicitor or a barrister were much quicker at dealing with cases and expected those appearing in front of them to be brief.
St. John Harmsworth sat at the court in Marlborough Street, in the heart of the West End, next to the London Palladium and just across the road from Liberty’s. He was extremely punctual, walking briskly into court dressed in a pinstripe suit, a military tie of navy blue and dark red stripes and a fresh rose in his button hole. If he was strict in his interpretation of the law, he was also humane.
One morning I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called on, when a fifty year old was brought into the dock. He had been charged with being drunk and disorderly. The arresting officer (they went to court then) stood in the witness box and said he had stopped the defendant as he been staggering on his feet on Oxford Street at about eight o’ clock that very morning.
‘I spoke to him to ask his name, Sir, and noticed his breath smelt of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet, Sir,’ the policeman said. This was a formula all officers used when describing somebody as drunk.
The warrant officer, the man who controls the order the cases are called before the bench, moved forward and said, ‘He was only released from Pentonville this morning, Sir.’
‘What time were you released from custody?’ said St. John Harmsworth, addressing the man in the dock.
‘How did you manage to get drunk between six and eight?’
‘Well, your honour.’ (Defendants in the magistrates’ court frequently get the form of address wrong. Only Crown Court Judges are addressed as Your Honour.) ‘It’s my birthday and the lads in the kitchen at Pentonville brewed some hooch and we spent the night drinking.’
St. John Harmsworth looked at the charge sheet in front of him. ‘So it is. Well as it’s your birthday I’ll fine you five pounds or one day,’ he said. There was no need to explain to the defendant that t one day meant he was to stay in custody for the remainder of the court day. It was a common way of dealing with those whose offences were minor and means were limited.
As the prisoner was being led away the learned magistrate said to the warrant officer, ‘Release him as soon as he’s sobered up.’
In these changing times I was a little sad to see the court I had been to so often is now a boutique hotel.