Silence in court! Town Hall magistrates court a scene of real-life dramas
IT was a place of real-life drama and defining moments, a room in which futures changed dramatically and people lost their hitherto good reputation and the respect of their families, neighbours, friends and colleagues.
In these austere dark-panelled surroundings, victims of crimes and their alleged perpetrators came face to face, perhaps for the first time.
Would there be guilt and punishment, with a fine or even imprisonment? Or exoneration and blessed relief?
This was Great Yarmouth Magistrates Court, in which local newspaper reporters spent many hours of their professional life, for the Press is an essential component of the justice system.
Only a handful of the public ever attend a hearing, usually for interest or to satisfy curiosity, the vast majority of people relying on newspapers to supply court coverage.
My debut was on my second day in journalism, accompanying a seasoned colleague to the town hall to witness my first court hearing and write my first report.
It did not tell readers about some heinous act involving a hardened villain or career criminal but comprised only three simple paragraphs about a 42-year-old woman from Southtown who admitted stealing a pint of milk from a North Quay doorstep and was fined £2 after asking for three similar cases to be taken into consideration.
Magistrates’ chairman Bert Matthes called her thefts “a particularly mean business”.
That was in 1955 and the first of thousands I penned before I switched from reporting to helping to produce the Mercury.
If I had ever decided to specialise, I would have chosen court reporting. I enjoyed it, although some colleagues found it a morning chore.
There was always the outside possibility of a bit of drama, but it was generally mundane and seldom, if ever, produced the legal cut-and-thrust imagined by screenwriters.
The assignment was never burdensome even in an era when everything on the daily court list, however trivial, was published – other than minor traffic offences by holidaymakers - because we had a responsibility to be fair and impartial and did not pick and choose.
Of course, newspapers are a commercial undertaking and, because readers eagerly devoured court coverage, sales were helped.
Very occasionally a defendant would sidle up and proffer a shilling to the reporter, having been misled by a widespread false belief that this was an acknowledged token payment ensuring this case would go unreported and, therefore, he or she would be spared the ignominy and humiliation of publicity. Wrong!
When I first sat on the un-cushioned wooden press bench in the court, even cyclists pedalling “without a red reflector to the rear” found their name in the Mercury and its sister newspapers, the Eastern Evening News and edp - probably only a short paragraph or a list, but it was there. I doubt anyone has been summonsed for that offence for decades!
Serious charges were sent by magistrates either to the Yarmouth Quarter Sessions or to Norwich Assizes for trial and/or sentencing. Crown courts succeeded them.
Last week my endless hours of court reporting were brought back into nostalgic focus when I entered that former magistrates court for the first time in well over a quarter of a century.
No, not because my past sins had finally caught up with me (had that happened, I would have been not in the town hall but along North Quay in the new courthouse opened in 1991) but due to the fact that the old magistrates courtroom has been converted into the borough council chamber, part of a major restructuring and renovation of the building’s interior.
I was on a tour of inspection of the remodelled parts, finding that where justice was dispensed is now the council chamber, a place of debate and decision-making. Yet, despite the new role, “Petty Sessions Court” is still on the public door as a reminder of its history.
The room’s orientation has been altered to suit its new role. For example, to my surprise the mayor does not occupy the magistrates’ old bench but now faces it across the room, with councillors in front of him and at the sides.
The public seats remain as always, and people can follow proceedings on a large TV screen and catch every word because all councillors and officers have microphones.
How times have changed!
The sloped “writing desk” - basically a varnished plank of wood - on which pressmen had penned court reports had not been tossed into a skip but is still there, complete with four empty inkwells and a sliding metal cover over ink-pots used by journalists long before my time.
Councillors Ron Hanton, leader of the Conservative group, and Martin Plane sit where we reporters once sat, but all councillors now have individual comfortable chairs and not the bum-numbing press bench we endured for many a long hour.
Another reflective moment was discovering that the names of numerous Yarmouth newspapermen are still inscribed there, some with dates – including my own bit of vandalistic defacing.
Many a pen nib or ballpoint were ruined down the decades by our gouging as we furtively whiled away time during the justices’ retirements to consider verdicts.
Bernard Farrant, Tim Greenhalgh, Jennifter Jepson, Mark Wells, Mick Walsh, Tom Carver, Ken Mason, Andy Knowles, Mick Dennis, Michael Bullock, Phil Lumb, Roland Adburgham, John Angier, Richard Futter and Nolan Lincoln are among the deep-etched names that will probably live on for many years to come for councillors to try to decipher.
Now and again even we seasoned court reporters misjudged a defendant. Some, of course, we recognised as regulars in the dock, but others we informally predicted as guilty or innocent (not in our reports, of course) as hearings proceeded.
Once, a tearful young mother denied stealing a tube of toothpaste, saying her toddler had knocked over a shop display and, after she picked everything up, she left the shop hurriedly but forgot to pay in the confusion.
She was acquitted, and I felt relieved for her. Then I learned she had a string of similar shop-lifting convictions - and had used a similar excuse each time!
Yarmouth magistrates were not the only adjudicators in the town hall.
Flegg justices heard cases from the villages, and every three months the quarter sessions were held in the council chamber, with bewigged and gowned judge (named a recorder) and barristers dealing with the more serious cases passed to them by magistrates, either for full trial or sentencing when the justices considered someone deserved greater punishment than they were allowed to mete out.
The county court, over which a judge presided, also sat in the town hall, dealing with civil disputes. Juvenile courts took place in the town hall. Inquests there were conducted by the coroner.
Quarter sessions could be more like the stuff of television series as counsel for prosecution and defence sought to score evidential and legal points over one another while striving not to overstep their enthusiasm and earn a rebuke from His Lordship.
During lunch adjournments, legal adversaries chatted over a drink and a snack in the Star Hotel opposite. All very civilised.
Occasionally a quarter sessions trial unexpectedly dragged on: I recall one involving youths denying that they had stolen a safe from the Co-operative store on the Market Place lasted a week and overflowed into the Saturday, almost unprecedented. And it should have been my day off!