‘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.

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