Inside Crown Court by Jessica Jacobson, Gillian Hunter and Amy Kirby was launched at the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Policy Press editor Victoria Pittman shares her experience of attending the event and explains why she feels this is such an important and revealing book.
I am lucky enough to have attended events at the Royal Courts of Justice before but, with the launch of our new book Inside Crown Court last week at this appropriate venue, it is now my new favourite.
It’s hard not to be excited when three lovely authors arrange an interesting and engaging presentation, including contributions from the Lord Chief Justice, Baroness Vivian Stern and Professor Penny Cooper, and then hold it in a court room at the Royal Courts of Justice.
As the Lord Chief Justice pointed out, few courts match the splendour of the one we were sitting in for the first part of the event. (I wish I could include a picture but of course photographs are not allowed – hence the book cover of Inside Crown Court, featuring some wonderful sketches by Christopher Tomlinson rather than an image.)
Authors Amy Kirby, Gillian Hunter and Jessica Jacobson
However, what really made this event for me was the content of the book we were there to celebrate and the extracts from the people who were interviewed as part of the research.
‘them and us’
One of key themes of the book is what the authors describe as a ‘them and us’ divide and how ‘the passivity of defendants and marginalisation of victims and witnesses mirror each other and underpin the divide between ‘them’ (the court users) and ‘us’ (the professionals)’.
Amy Kirby read out two quotes to demonstrate this which I found particularly striking and which highlight how the experience of attending court might feel for those involved. The first was from a victim of robbery, who had no previous experience of court. He discussed his experience of cross-examination, and said:
‘I just felt like [the defence counsel] didn’t look happy; he looked miserable: a face of disbelief at what I’m saying. But it’s funny, because every time we were paused for a break that face would just go and he would laugh and talk to my barrister as if they were friends.’
The second extract was from a defendant with several court experiences, the most recent of which was a trial for assault and attempted murder; of which he was found guilty of assault but not guilty of attempted murder. He said:
‘If you’re a defence lawyer … you should always fight, as in, if your client is saying, “I’m not guilty,” you should fight for him like he’s not guilty … [but] they’re pally pally … with the prosecution. I see them coming in and they’re laughing and joking. I’m thinking: What’s this? Like you’re going for some drinks or something.’
Another quote which stayed in my mind was one read by Gillian Hunter which draws attention to the sometimes distressing experience of cross examination.
Although the purpose of cross examination is to discredit the evidence and raise doubts about what is being said, this comment from a victim of sexual assault suggests that she had not anticipated just how much personal information would be discussed as part of the case:
‘I wasn’t prepared for being taken back to when I was five and six years old. … They were going for mental health; they were going for me to be unstable, that I was forgetful,… They dig everything up – all your medical records…They brought up all my history at home, my life with my mum and dad, my teenage years, mental health and physical health.
I’ve had my kidney removed, I’ve also had a hysterectomy and breast tissue removed under each arm …and they brought a plain piece of A4 paper with an outline of the female body and marked off where my scars were and they gave it to all the witnesses and to him to say that’s where all my operations were…I didn’t realise they were going to hand a picture like that around the court for everyone to see my bodyline basically, like I’d been dissected.’
Jessica Jacobson summarised the book as describing the court experience to be ‘inherently difficult, stressful and frustrating; sometimes very distressing; and overlaid with all kind of contradictions,’ but also as evidencing ‘an implicit belief in the legitimacy of the court process’.
One of the points which was discussed in the question and answer session after the presentations was the importance of communication and preparing victims and defendants for the court experience.
Although Baroness Stern argued that we have come almost as far as we can in terms of improving the court process (without changing from an adversarial system), the authors suggested that there is still much which can be done to improve the experience for witnesses, victims and defendants.
I was pleased to hear the Lord Chief Justice talk about the value of academic research which clearly has an important part to play and I personally hope that more people choose to undertake this kind of important research into the criminal justice system. I am delighted to be involved in publishing and launching such an engaging and valuable book.
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Copies of Inside Crown Court can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website – here.
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