Fifteenyears after its closure, Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, which over its 271-year history provided a stage for Oscar Wilde, Emmeline Pankhurst, Dr Crippen, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, the Kray twins and General Pinochet, is about to reopen as a hotel called NoMad London. There will be luxury suites costing up to £2500 a night, a cocktail lounge called Common Decency ‘which will bring a little East London cool to Covent Garden’, and a ‘culinary perspective [that is] casually elegant with moments of whimsy’. In 2006, I was a member of the press bench at Bow Street on its final day as a functioning court (I still have my pass). A young woman, arrested for posting advertisements for sex workers in telephone boxes, was given a conditional discharge and ordered to surrender her Blu Tack. A businessman facing extradition to Germany for a £14 million fraud case was remanded in custody. Two Kosovans were accused of paying £4000 to buy a Moldovan woman from an Albanian gang in a deal agreed in a pod on the London Eye. They denied forcing her into the sex trade but were rejected for bail because false documents had been found at their home. A young Londoner who had stuffed £200 worth of Marks & Spencer lingerie down his trousers was remanded for reports.

At last, the list-caller, Angela Georgiou, told the magistrate, Timothy Workman: ‘With sadness, I call your last case ever at Bow Street, sir.’ The honour fell to a 32-year-old Scot from Kirkcaldy, who had breached an Asbo (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) – he was found in possession of a bottle of red wine and some lighter fluid – and little knew that the hand of history had landed on his collar the previous night in the Covent Garden piazza. It was his fifth visit to the court and he pleaded guilty. ‘The closure of the court, with its great legal heritage and its history,’ Workman said, ‘is of great sadness to me and to all who are associated with this court.’ He was the 33rd chief magistrate, a role once held by Henry Fielding, who presided over the first detective force, the Bow Street Runners.

The same thing has been happening everywhere. Five years ago, and a few miles away, what was once Old Street Magistrates’ Court was turned into the Courthouse Hotel. The Jailhouse Bar offers cocktails in a setting that features ‘historically significant architecture, including former prison holding cells’. A painting on the wall portrays the Mona Lisa behind bars. Despite the Shoreditch location, there wasn’t much East London cool in evidence when I last attended the court, in 1998, to cover the appearance of the child-rapist Roger Gleaves, often described by the press as ‘the most evil man in Britain’. On the other side of the Thames, the former Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court is now the Dixon Hotel. There, beneath a mighty chandelier, you can enjoy an ‘afternoon tea experience alongside the mugshot pictures of ex-convicts framed on the walls’. And in Scotland, the famous old court building in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square has become a luxury tourist hostel called The CoURT (sic). It offers ‘a chance to sleep in a jail cell without having to commit any crime’.

Of the 320 magistrates’ courts that were functioning in England and Wales in 2010, 164 have closed, sold off to developers for a total of £223 million. In Scotland, seventeen Sheriff and Justice of the Peace courts closed between 2010 and 2016. The closures were justified on grounds of cost but the disappearance of so many courts, combined with the effects of the pandemic, has led to thousands of jury trials being delayed by months, even years. People arrested recently may have to wait until the end of next year or even 2023 to have their day in court. Meanwhile, the significant cuts in legal aid introduced in 2012 have driven many defence lawyers out of business. And if all this leads to miscarriages of justice, well, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, established in 1995 to examine possible wrongful convictions, has also had its budget cut since 2010, forcing it to let staff go; those who remain now have to manage more than double the workload. In March, Glyn Maddocks, special adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, warned that ‘the risk of wrongful conviction is at least as great today as it was in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps more so.’

The disappearance of courts coincides with the decline in court reporting. Once, most national newspapers had a full-time court reporter – now none of them has. And whereas every local paper used to cover trials regularly at their nearest court, few now bother. These days we are reliant on hard-pressed and often uncredited agency reporters for any information about what is happening in our courts. This was one of the key findings of the Cairncross Review, published in 2019. The review, led by the former journalist Frances Cairncross, was asked to examine ‘the sustainability of high-quality journalism’ in the wake of plummeting numbers of journalists and newspaper sales. One study quoted found that court reporting had dropped by 30 per cent in the national press and by 40 per cent in the regional press over a period of just four years.

Court reporting has a long tradition in Britain. Thomas Grant, in his book about the Old Bailey, Court Number One (John Murray, £10.99), gives special credit to Rebecca West, who wrote about treason and spy cases from the 1940s to the 1960s, and Sybille Bedford, whose account of the trial of Dr Bodkin Adams in 1957 is ‘generally regarded as the finest single volume account of a criminal trial ever written’. The Notable British Trials series, published by William Hodge and Company, ran from 1905 to 1959 and produced 83 titles. Penguin’s version, the Famous Trials series, sold in the hundreds of thousands. In Scotland, the grand master of court reporting, William Roughead, covered the major murder trials for sixty years from 1889, after being riveted as a 17-year-old by Captain L. Benson’s The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters. Among Roughead’s criminal mementos was a piece of skin belonging to William Burke (of Burke and Hare), which he kept in a snuff box. In 1828, Burke was convicted and sentenced to death in what is now The CoURT hostel.

While major trials may still receive some coverage, magistrates’ courts – where a single day tells us so much about poverty, sexual exploitation, drug use, education, race, alcoholism, unemployment, mental illness, immigration and policing – now operate mainly in a vacuum. Igor Judge, the former lord chief justice, has described this state of affairs as ‘a threat to the justice system’. Without even basic public scrutiny of what happens in a court case, there is little chance that wrongful convictions or excessive sentences for minor offences will be spotted; the same goes for occasions when serious offenders don’t get the sentence expected. The government is currently pushing through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which, as it stands, will double the sentence for an ‘assault on an emergency worker’ to two years. While this may sound like a suitable punishment for, say, punching a nurse, in reality it will be used mainly to jail demonstrators who irritate the police. That’s why so many people – those the home secretary dismisses as ‘thugs’ – have been taking to the streets in protest. Justice has to be seen to be done, but, as J.B. Morton once remarked, sometimes it has to be seen to be believed.

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