‘Wicked. Sweet. Nice one’

John Upton

From the outside, –– magistrates’ court looks like a leisure centre. It is built from big blocks of yellow stone and its metal window frames are painted a garish red. There is a cement plaque set into the façade which states that it was officially opened by a Lord Lieutenant. A large plate-glass door opens onto a vaulted vestibule. On the door there is a sticker which says: ‘We accept MasterCard and Visa.’

Inside, the atmosphere resembles that of an airport terminal. It isn’t just the decor: the large hall, the white walls, the rows of functional seating facing the courtroom doors and the large windows through which the light streams in. Today, the youth court is in session, as it is once a week. Almost all the court’s clientele are dressed in leisurewear: shell suits, hooded tops, baseball caps and trainers – a uniform equally suitable for court, sport or global travel.

The denizens of the youth court and their parents – mostly overweight men in blouson leather jackets and women in fluorescent leggings – lounge on the chairs and the floor. They make occasional trips to the toilets or cafeteria but in the main sit in amorphous groups and docilely follow the usher into court when their case is called.

On one of the benches a father and son are discussing the Golden Jubilee. ‘I loved the Sex Pistols,’ the father says, and his son chuckles. ‘Do you know “God save the Queen”?’ he asks, and the boy shakes his Burberry baseball-capped head. ‘God save the Queen,’ his father launches into an a cappella rendition of the song, ‘The Fascist regime.’ Other parents look round. The son stares at his Nikes, mortified.

‘Daad, shut the fuck up,’ he says, and his father stops and grins at his audience. Some of the other parents meet his eye and smile appreciatively, but a little distantly, as if they’ve just listened to a palm court quartet play a few bars of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. The sunlight pulses through the window.

‘Just livening things up,’ he says contentedly to no one in particular.

Ezekiel’s mother has been sitting on the edge of the group, jiggling her knees up and down, and when I call out her son’s name, she rises unsteadily to her feet and walks towards me, in a theatrical approximation of menace, a Jet or Shark on Broadway. As she reaches me she stumbles slightly and I can see the uncontrollable gleam of drunkenness in her eye.

‘I’m his mother.’ Up close I smell the drink on her breath, the top notes of beer and underneath the harsher tones of a spirit, whisky perhaps. She is a small black woman in olive combat trousers and a dark blue close-fitting denim jacket, whose hair has been woven into a multitude of plaits, each one with a small shining bead at its tip which catches the light and casts a ghostly mottle on the white wall behind.

Ezekiel is in the cells, his mother tells me in a rambling monologue which is more concerned with her own abilities as a performance poet than with her son’s case. ‘Last week I was on the radio doing a reading at a gig,’ she tells me. ‘I love Ezekiel I love him but I’ve got an appointment I love him,’ she says. She has got to go, she tells me, but she’s arranged for someone else to accompany him in court, something that the rules insist on. As she talks – ‘I was on GLR’ – she begins to back away from me imperceptibly. ‘I’ll try and make it back.’ But the glassy desire in her eyes tells otherwise.

When the youth court is in session, the court is closed to adult defendants. Specially-trained magistrates try the cases of those aged between ten and 18 and business is conducted behind closed doors. No one is allowed into a youth court unless they have some connection to the case being heard, which makes it extremely difficult for defence lawyers to speak to prosecutors and leads to chaos in the short gaps between each hearing.

Because Ezekiel is in custody, I get to see the prosecutor quickly. A stocky man in his forties with a thin black moustache, he has adopted the peculiar style characteristic of those members of the Bar who wish to be considered dapper, and is dressed in a three-piece suit with a watch chain protruding from a small pocket in his waistcoat. It makes him look like an Edwardian stationmaster.

According to Section 8 of the Theft Act 1968, ‘a person is guilty of robbery if he steals, and immediately before or at the time of doing so, and in order to do so, he uses force on any person or puts or seeks to put any person in fear of being then and there subjected to force.’ Ezekiel’s actions certainly seem to fit this bill. The prosecutor tells me that he has taken money at knife-point from a group of passengers on the upper deck of a bus. ‘Highly dangerous,’ he says. ‘We will be opposing bail.’

Ezekiel is 15. He is known to the police for his strong-arm extortion tactics and his attacks have increased in ferocity with age. This is the first time that witnesses have been prepared to give evidence against him. Even so, they are very reluctant. It is taking the police a long time to convince them to break the strict honour code which binds the young on the estates in this area. The prosecutor shows me a police intelligence report (‘Now there’s a contradiction in terms,’ he jokes) which lists several violent street robberies that Ezekiel is suspected of committing but which can’t be proved. He confirms that Ezekiel is being held in the cells. To reach him, I have to walk back to the vestibule. In the corner a discreet spiral staircase leads down to the custody area.

CCTV cameras record the progress of anyone approaching and a sign on the wall halfway down states that only legal representatives are allowed. At the bottom of the stairs, a Group 4 security man sits behind a sheet of perspex, monitoring cells and visitors on TV screens. He motions me over to an intercom and I explain who I am here to see. Without getting up, he gives me the once over and I am buzzed through into a corridor painted battleship grey which has cells leading off it. I sign the visitor’s book, entering my name and the address of my chambers.

Eventually, the warder, his stomach straining against his lime-green short-sleeved shirt, nods towards Ezekiel’s cell. He is the only youth on remand today and the cell area is startlingly quiet. Normally it resounds with shouts for methadone, cigarettes and lawyers against a constant background of obscenities like the sound of a train on the track: Fuckety fuck. Fuckety fuck. Fuckety fuck.

I stand outside the cell while the guard raises himself languorously from his chair like a sleepy sheriff in a Texan border town. As he unlocks the door, he laughs. ‘Nutter,’ he remarks and twizzles his forefinger at his temple. ‘He’s already sent the Youth Justice workers packing.’ This is said in a tone which verges on admiration. ‘Do you want to see him here or in the interview room?’ The door swings open.

Ezekiel has blond corkscrew curls which cascade over his face. He has eggshell blue eyes and his skin is a lightly tanned colour. He looks far younger than 15. He is slim with delicate hands and he sits on the bench, his legs crossed and his hands resting in his lap, palms upwards like a statue of the Buddha meditating. Ezekiel is naked. His clothes lie in a pile on the floor.

‘Here will be fine.’

‘Where the fuck have you been, man?’ Ezekiel says in a rather un-Siddharta-like manner. He is annoyed; he was one of the first to be dropped off by the prison van as it did its rounds and so has been waiting a long time for his court appearance; in protest he is refusing to wear his clothes. I explain to him that I didn’t receive any details about his case until this morning. He expresses his frustration by treating me with haughty disdain, and instead of sitting next to him on the bench as I would normally do with a client, I stand in front of him taking notes like a chamberlain before a demanding monarch.

Sensitive to issues of dominance, as many who inhabit the criminal justice system are, he begins to enjoy this temporary usurpation of power.

‘Is my mum outside?’ he asks and I tell him that she’s had to leave. He sucks his teeth in displeasure and then gets down to business without a pause. He gives a short, dispassionate account of the circumstances which have led to his appearing in front of the magistrates. The police have got it in for him.

‘It’s like I stand up for my rights, man. I know my rights. They fucking hate that. It’s a fucking fit-up.’ Another group of boys, in conjunction with the cops, are determined ‘to take me out of the fucking running’. I ask him about the allegations of violence on other occasions. He smiles. ‘Just a game, isn’t it?’

When Ezekiel talks about his activities, it is with considerable harshness, as if he is possessed by the spirit of someone older than himself. It is difficult to reconcile the physical body of the child with the cynicism that he expresses. He is looking forward to getting back to the other geezers in Feltham A, the notoriously savage young offenders’ institute for juveniles up to the age of 17.

‘It’s fucking all right. It’s sweet,’ he says. I explain to him that he is unlikely to get leave to apply for bail today. ‘I don’t mind being banged up, man, I’ve got mates there.’ I tell him that I will see him in court.

‘Wicked,’ he says.

As I leave the custody area, I can hear him calling to the guard. ‘Oi mate, have you got a fag? Can I have a fag?’ His voice echoes along the corridor, unanswered.

Back upstairs, in the waiting area, only a few of the original crowd of youths and their parents remain. Standing at a safe distance from the remainder is a new arrival: a tall, well-dressed youth, accompanied by his mother and father, who form their own huddle of navy blue and camel cashmere. The well-dressed youth’s lawyer arrives. He is equally well turned out in a pin-striped suit, and he pulls a case on wheels behind him.

‘I’m so sorry I’m late,’ he says and begins to explain the trouble he’s had on the railway. He is cut off in mid-flow by the youth’s mother, a heavily made-up woman in her early forties.

‘Do you know the facts?’ she asks repeatedly while Father flicks his Hermès tie from his paunch and gazes around the waiting area. The barrister, fumbling with the papers that he has retrieved from his bag, outlines the case against the youth, who stares defiantly at his peers. They loll on the seats looking with curiosity at this alien life form. His skin gives off a healthy glow, a tribute to middle-class dietary habits and in obvious contrast to the chip-fed complexions of the other juveniles. He has been caught red-handed shoplifting in Marks & Spencer.

‘I think you’re going to have to enter a guilty plea,’ his barrister says apologetically. They move closer together and it becomes more difficult to hear what they’re saying. Then Mother speaks up. This remark is meant for us all.

‘Remember to mention the name of his school. The chairman of the bench is familiar with our school,’ and she smiles at her son. They are called in by the usher, the barrister entering court last of all, his shoulders hunched as if he is about to mount the steps to the guillotine.

I take a seat on one of the rows next to a fat girl who is giggling and kicking out her legs with such vigour that her momentum is flinging her to the edge of her seat before she pulls herself back again. The seat begins to jog forward, and with visions of reaching the courtroom door fifteen feet in front of us, I put my feet down firmly to end our journey. She tuts and huffs and stares at me sulkily. I ignore her.

Ten minutes later, the doors of the court burst open and the pin-striped barrister emerges. He is sweating and smiling and looks around for recognition like an actor whose performance has gone down particularly well with a first-night audience. Pumped up with adrenaline, he is happy to talk to me.

‘God, I was dreading that. The spoiled little shit was a private payer.’ A private payer, the white truffle of a criminal justice system in which most cases are inadequately funded by the Legal Aid Board, is in a position to demand satisfaction in return for parting with exorbitant sums of money. I ask the barrister what sentence the youth received.

‘Cond. dis. Great stuff,’ he congratulates himself. A conditional discharge is a judicial rap on the knuckles. It does not count as a criminal conviction and will never have to be declared. The parents and their son come out of the courtroom. The parents’ faces show conflicting emotions of shame at being in a place like this and smugness that they have succeeded in buying the right result. The well-dressed youth regards us all with contempt. There are handshakes all round and the barrister has begun to tout, talking up his victory: ‘Very tricky case . . . thought they were going to go the other way . . . let your solicitors know, won’t you?’ He has even gained enough confidence to admonish his client, who towers above him. ‘And don’t you do it again. Think of your parents!’ Then the family departs. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he calls after them. He sits heavily on the other end of the row of seats that the fat girl and I are on, catapulting her forward. She begins to smile again.

‘Mr Upton,’ the usher calls. It’s my turn.

By the time I enter court, Ezekiel has been brought up from the cells. He has been provided with a white surgical gown and walks into the dock looking like an angel in a painting by Piero della Francesca. The magistrates watch him benignly.

‘Is Ezekiel accompanied by anyone today?’ the chairman of the bench, an elderly man with a bald head and Eric Morecambe spectacles, enquires. He is too polite to comment on Ezekiel’s mode of dress.

‘Sir, good afternoon, I represent Ezekiel today,’ I stand and incline my head towards the magistrates, who incline theirs in return. I explain that his mother, who attended earlier, has been called away urgently and sends her profuse apologies. There is a spate of notetaking from the magistrates, who have the power to compel her attendance. They mutter to each other behind raised hands like a team on a TV game show and their learned clerk, who has been staring into the middle distance, is called to give his opinion. He stands and joins in the debate, murmuring the options available to them. The issue is resolved.

‘Given that Ezekiel has been held long enough in the cells and we don’t want to waste any more time, we will proceed.’ The prosecutor explains his position. Statements in the case are not yet ready, as several witnesses have only recently come forward. He makes an application for an adjournment while Ezekiel leans on the edge of the dock smirking.

‘I have no objections,’ I intone. The magistrates glance darkly at the lawyers in front of them. They are under orders to deal with matters involving youths as quickly as possible. They dislike delay. Once again they confer, this time more intently, as if a million pounds hangs on it. The prosecutor leans across and whispers: ‘They’re so slow. We should replace them all with DJs.’ District judges are professional lawyers who hear cases in magistrates’ courts and are considered more efficient in the administration of justice.

‘We agree to this adjournment but there must be progress on the next occasion,’ the chairman pronounces.

The clerk consults a multitude of different calendars and diaries like an astrologer charting the movement of the planets. He speaks to the listing office by telephone. ‘Date please. Youth Court. Three weeks? Three weeks. The sixth? The sixth?’

He is looking at the prosecutor and me. We nod: ‘The sixth.’ He turns to his betters: ‘The sixth.’

The chairman of the bench looks at Ezekiel, smiles paternally and says: ‘Ezekiel. You’ll come to court again on the sixth. Do you understand?’ Silence. ‘Well, do you?’

‘Fuck off, you bald cunt,’ Ezekiel says quietly but with feeling. Nobody speaks. The magistrate, despite intensive coaching from the Lord Chancellor’s Department, several visits to young offenders’ institutes and numerous training videos, reacts very badly.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he bellows.

‘Fuck. Off. You. Bald. Cunt.’ Each word is louder than the last.

The magistrates are thrown into confusion. Once more, they confer, but this time they seem to be hiding behind their hands from the horror that Ezekiel stands for: to them he is the representative of a horde of amoral thugs straining to break out of their ghettoes and attack Middle England.

For his part, Ezekiel is discovering the benefits which are available to a perpetrator of violent crime: the ability to shock, the respect of his peers, the sense of identity that the role bestows. He has already cultivated an air of cold brutality that will not only ensure that he survives Feltham but will no doubt lead to numerous periods of incarceration throughout his life in the various desperate places of the prison system.

‘You heard me, you stupid fat fuck.’ He is smiling and, when the prison guard approaches, adds: ‘Don’t you touch me, you fuck. You’ve got no right to touch me.’

In a matter of seconds the magistrates have been rendered powerless. They are caught between, on the one hand, thoughts of leaving the court, thus conceding defeat and, on the other, of impotently braving out Ezekiel’s abuse.

The clerk reaches for a hidden text rather in the way that a gunslinger pulls the concealed revolver from his boot. He reads from it briefly, tracing the line of words with his finger so as not to lose his place as the maelstrom rages.

‘Take him down, guard, please. No change in circumstances for bail purposes?’ I nod. ‘Remanded in custody.’ Just as quickly as it began, it ends, and Ezekiel, shrugging the warder’s hand from his shoulder, steps from the dock without saying a word, a piece of flawed light sparkling on its wayward course. He is happy to be going back to Feltham.

The clerk turns in his seat. ‘You can of course, sir, begin proceedings for contempt of court against Ezekiel if you wish.’

But without looking at either of his colleagues, the chairman of the bench shakes his head slightly. He more than the others seems diminished by Ezekiel’s behaviour. He pats his pate delicately as if to reassure it that the whole thing really was not its fault.

The usher steps forward. ‘Next on your list, sir . . .’ I nod to the prosecutor, gather up my papers and leave the court.

When I go to see Ezekiel in the cells he has put his clothes back on and nonchalantly he thanks me.

‘Wicked. Sweet. Nice one,’ he says. I leave him smiling to himself. He’s ready to take them on, whoever they are.