Inspiration! Courts

We all need a bit of it in these strange times...

Debuting at 66

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Andy D

Sep 3, 2019
For my day job I probably go to court a half dozen times a year. Gone are the days when we'd follow a case for weeks on end, unless they're really big stories (so in recent years, the Babes in the Wood killer and the Shoreham Air Disaster). Nowadays - like yesterday - we turn up cold, agency copy desperately in hand, trying to figure everything out in time to produce something for the camera that night. And every time it surprises me what gems for writers courts are.

Even as a journalist, it's rare for you to be in place to watch stories unfold in real time - and yet that's literally what happens in courts every day, and with tales to spare. Meanwhile, your imagination can run riot. Yesterday, while I was writing my copy up in the foyer this huge dude with a massive holdall (he'd obviously expected to go to jail) was in conversation with his smaller, bewigged, brief. In many ways, one imagined they were polar opposites in background and education - yet the imposing gangster held sway, even though, I learned afterwards, he'd been found innocent of whatever crime he'd been dragged in for, only to be dragged back for contempt after he'd been caught playing with his phone in the dock! He'd refused to give it up so the court would know what he'd been doing - and what had he been doing? Who was he? What had he REALLY done?

My story was about a trucker who'd hit and killed a millionaire driving a vintage 1903 car taking part in the London to Brighton Rally. The trucker had been on his phone 7 seconds before the crash. The millionaire had taken the wrong turn to end up on the M23 driving at just 20mph. Presumed guilty by my newsdesk, I found the trucker's defence lawyer surprisingly effective as he summed up the case, intensely aware - I can confess here - of how my own phone had been constantly calling out to me from the passenger seat on the drive to court itself.

Yet, I'll also confess, in most cases I feel a strange but palpable sympathy for those in the dock whatever their crimes - and I've seen some of the worst - because, even when they refuse the stand, you can sense the weight of their past upon them, the nightmarish enormity of their actions and the choices perhaps forced upon them, and the grim future that most certainly awaits. 'There but by the grace...' I find is my constant court mantra. And then, of course, there's the tears of victims families to dwell on, the red faced defendant's families, the judge, the briefs, the jurors. Courts are filled with CHARACTERS and DRAMA. I'd recommend them.

I usually find that the reports themselves come easy in court. As long as you can fight the drowsiness and boredom of legal speak, the notes sketched down in your pad often come with asterisks ('that's a great line, that's a great line, that's a GREAT LINE!') so when you shuffle them together with the facts as you have them, again dining on the agency copy you're clutching like gold, the script almost writes itself. But on your way out you notice, not for the first time, that the security guard has a 'jingle bells' ring-tone (already!) on his phone, and as you turn round and catch his eye you think, blimey, 'he's a character too'.
When I was 17 or 18 I was writing a story about a girl whose dad goes to jail. With zero experience of the justice system I thought I'd better do some primary research so I persuaded a friend to come with me to court and we sat in on something, taking copious notes. I re-read the story in question a year or 2 ago and to be fair that bit stands up pretty well, at least to a layperson. I can't believe that I had the guts to do such a thing; I'd be way too terrified now!
They can be quite intimidating but, outside of Covid restrictions, should be freely open to the public. Probably the best thing about bring a journalist is you can stroll into most places / situations, put your game face on, and act with at least some justification that you belong!
And being in a position to defend oneself is also an experience too gold to hide under the rug. But even being right, in the right, and capable of speaking about your rights that evoked the action, doesn't mean the law won't get you on the little things, however hard you fight.
Or was that the other time?
I used to attend court and tribunals with clients when I worked as an advocate for people with mental health struggles and learning difficulties. The biggest barrier people found to achieving justice was understanding their solicitor. The solicitors would waffle on in legal jargon and not care whether their clients understood them or not, as they were being paid anyway. My role was to keep asking questions and making sure that the person understood what was being said and written about them, what their rights were, when and how they could respond... what was going on, basically.
Great post @Andy D

I remember reading a piece by someone who was offering writers advice on plotting and how we all function under pressure. I can't remember who wrote the article, but their advice was make a point of visiting your local courts and sit in for a morning or an afternoon.

Also, two of my favourite authors choose the courtroom to set the majority of their scenes. The late, great and utterly brilliant (Sir) John Mortimer (Rumpole) and the currently doing rather well for himself, Steve Cavanagh (Eddie Flynn).

And if there has ever been a better film than 12 Angry Men, then I'll go to the foot of our stairs. I will.
Thanks Jonny! I still rate Back to the Future myself, but still… ;)

The trucker ended up being found guilty of death by reckless driving - a reduced charge from the two the Crown were chasing. Be interesting to see what he’ll sentenced to as a result. Not sure what Henry Fonda would have thought of it!
Actually- joking aside on the film front Andy - Back to the Future really is my fave movie, like evuuuuuuur!
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Debuting at 66