There was a time, it seems long ago now, when reports from magistrates’ courts were the cornerstone of decent local newspapers.
Few these days appear to have the time or manpower to properly cover them. This is a terrible loss to the papers and to the people who buy them.
But not only that. I cut my teeth as a rookie reporter nearly two decades ago and found the courts of Kent to be a source of entertainment it is otherwise impossible to manufacture.
Take for example the bloke who decided to answer his mobile phone as he sat in the dock listening to the details of his crime: “Hi. No, no, I’m just in court at the moment.”
As the magistrate tore into him, he raised his hand to stall her and continued: “Well, there’s some salmon in the fridge.”
Or what about the silver-haired businessman who roared down the M20 for 10 miles without stopping as the police frantically blue-lighted him.
The 70-year-old later explained to the court that he was late for his Channel Tunnel service, adding that he assumed the police knew this and were providing an escort to Folkestone to ensure he made it.
Then there was the defendant who said he couldn’t possibly be guilty of stealing two turkeys from a supermarket because the store was offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal on the day of the theft.
Sitting in court I’ve seen every sort of crank, reprobate and social misfit occupy the dock.
I’ve witnessed inebriates fall asleep during proceedings, looked on as a man facing fraud charges feigned a heart attack and seen a man strike his co-defendant with a crutch.
The reluctance of regional publishers to send their reporters to hearings frustrates that principle which underpins court reporting: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”
This explains why for many a defendant the punishment handed down by the court is often insignificant next to a report of their behaviour appearing in the local paper.
This was no better demonstrated than by the drunk who got himself thrown out of the pub directly next to Margate police station.
Sensibly, he decided to kick off outside, prompting a couple of officers to walk the 30 yards from their front desk and march him back the other way under arrest for drunk and disorderly.
At court he admitted the offence, but had obviously spied me scribbling away on the Press bench. After the prosecutor’s opening remarks, the defendant was asked whether he had anything he wanted to say.
“Well, yes, I have actually,” he said. “I would just like to exercise my right for this not to go in the newspaper.”
The clerk wearily informed him that he had no such right. “That is bang out of order,” he raged from the dock, “I am a law-abiding member of the community and last time this happened they put it in the paper and made me look stupid.”
At Canterbury Magistrates’ Court, a 20-year-old cleaner pleaded guilty to stealing jewellery worth £1,500 from a client.
After seeing a report about his crime in the paper, the thief wisely took to Facebook to voice his displeasure at such a public slight upon his character.
“They didn’t ask my permission to do this,” he complained. “My human rights have been breached. End of!”
But it isn’t just defendants who played their parts in this theatre of the absurd.
Solicitors, too, can be relied upon to have those on the Press bench tittering in delight. Spotting that a solicitor seemed to be enjoying himself rather too much, a magistrates enquired: “Are you smiling, Mr Bond?” “Well, smirking, actually,” came the reply. “Yes, I really shouldn’t laugh at my clients.”
Another time, as the details of a harassment case were outlined the solicitor sitting nearest me rolled his eyes and muttered: “What’s he been charged with? Illegal staring?”
Then there was the defence lawyer who sidled up to me rather sheepishly after delivering a persuasive monologue.
“Could you do me a favour and not quote those cannabis use statistics I gave,” he whispered. “They may not, ahem, be entirely accurate.”
In the case of a one-legged junkie shoplifter who rolled out of a supermarket at low speed with vodka and cheese in his wheelchair, his solicitor told the court that his client had since been fitted with a prosthetic limb and stopped taking drugs, adding plainly: “He is a changed man.”
And there are times when solicitors are asked by their clients to work miracles as in the case of one advocate making a bail application for a man remanded in custody. “Your worships,” he said gingerly, “I am invited today to apply for bail although you will see that my client’s list of antecedents are not the best, what with the armed robbery, the series of rapes and the manslaughter, but…”
Creative headline writers in papers have profited from the comedy and madness of the magistrates’ courts.
A story about a man caught urinating off the top of Margate’s multi-storey car park was headed: “Piddler on the roof.”
When a toerag strolled into a shoe shop to try on some Timberlands, he disappeared without paying leaving behind a pair of knackered trainers. “Thief’s boots were made for walking.”
My editor once emerged from his lair sniggering that he’d managed to capture the essence of a defendant’s insignificant seaside town in a headline: “Peeing drug-taking drunk was out celebrating birth of third child.”
I’ve never had so much fun in journalism than covering the work of magistrates.
The fact that so few courts now seem to be reported on is not helped by the effort to reduce spending on justice by allowing police to hand out fixed penalty notices for minor offences.
This is a terrible loss for the newspapers, for the communities they serve and for justice itself. It also means thousands of great stories will never see the sunlight.