Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bow Street Magistrates' Court

John Mortimer QC, one of the best-known members of the Bar, has been the subject of many books, some of which are worth a read. "Clinging To The Wreckage" is particularly worth-while.

I have recently finished one such book, which contains, as do they all, brief accounts of some of his more famous cases, which often involved obscene publications. One matter being discussed was the Lady Birdwood obscenity trial, a private prosecution involving The Council of Love, a play depicting an Easter Day orgy, complete with randy cardinals, a naked Pope, Mary as a whore, Jesus in a wheelchair, and a rather shabbily-attired God. It was a nineteenth century satire, being put on at the Criterion Theatre.

John Mortimer QC (plus juniors) and Quentin Edwards QC (plus juniors), were pitted against each other in a case that was attracting intense media attention, dealing as it did with such grave issues as freedom of speech and censorship. It struck me, upon finishing the story, that this case was being heard in the mags. In fact, many of Mortimer's best cases started and ended in the mags.

The case was thrown out, by the way, during committal proceedings, when Mortimer was able to show that the two defendants were not present at the time, and could not, therefore, be responsible for the content of the play on the night Lady Birdwood was in attendance.

It is apparent from reading books about that particular era, that the magistrates' courts were held in rather higher regard than they are these days. "Old-style" committals to the Crown Court, with the calling of evidence, and cross-examination of witnesses, were standard, and the local benches were well-respected by local villains.

Time passed, and "local villains" became "court users", and politicians seem eager to have cases heard in the crown court, for the "serious stuff", or diverted, for the "not-so-serious stuff".

What future does the magistrates' court have in this climate?


  1. I have to be honest and say that I am quite glad that most challenging cases go upstairs these days. Here's an example of why: I made a bail app for an African gentleman who was in the UK illegally. He had been arrested using a false passport and driving licence to do things at the bank. Much to my surprise the lay bench granted him bail. Obviously, I put his release down to my brilliance - thats a joke by the way; however, I think that the silliness of the mags has a lot to do with it too.

  2. That's pretty much what we're wondering too........ And I'm not going to respond to Anon re silliness of lay benches because, well, because I don't want to. We could compare the silliness of Mags with the stupidity of Sols but it won't enhance the thread.

  3. As an old time user and prosecutor at Bow Street I can vouch for the regard it was held in. I agree the demise of this respect due to government interference is a sad day.

  4. Go on, MidSouthJP, it'll make you feel better, let it out.