Christine Tongue: When you pop to see your MP – in crown court

Christine pops into Southwark Crown Court

I had to go to London this week to get my metal hip joint checked with the geniuses who put it in 26 years ago, and what should be happening the day of my appointment – my MP is in court!

So I went along to Southwark Crown Court to see what was going on. You don’t often get the chance to say to a security man checking you for bombs that you’re there to see your local MP in the dock.

I was expecting Victorian gloom, smelling of damp and decay, dark oak benches and a judge thumping a gavel – perhaps with a black cap to hand. But instead it was like a 50s idea of modern: blond wood, beige walls, totally bland – and no gavel.

On Tuesday the public gallery was full – I asked for a chair but no luck. Michael Crick – scourge of politicians of all colours showed his true colours by offering me his seat and said he would sit on the steps. What a gent! But the clerk of the court wouldn’t let him.

Craig was in a glass box. He gave me a little wave but couldn’t offer a chair as I would have been in the dock with him.

So I used the court loos – a bit shabby and didn’t flush too well – and went off to have coffee in Southwark cathedral garden.

I went back the next day early and this time the public gallery was half empty so I chatted to a Guardian journalist who I’d met first during the Farage campaign on Broadstairs seafront. He’s been taking an interest in Thanet eccentricities ever since.

Courts are seriously strange places! Both sides dress the same for a start – how do you know who’s defending and who’s prosecuting when they ‘re all in black and wear grey curly wigs and little white ties and speak with the same accent?

Only the judge is different. He’s in a slightly different wig – not the long side bits like in the fancy dress shops any more – just slightly less curly than the barristers. But he is allowed a long red dressing gown. Which you really needed in court no 7. It was freezing.

The poor jury came back from a break with their coats on and we public all fished our cardies out of our bags.

You rise for the judge, “All rise!” – even I did. Under other circumstances I plead stick-using to keep my seat but here I thought I’d best behave. You can be thrown in the cells for contempt of court.

But the court is amazingly “underoverawing” – if that’s a word. It all seemed a bit domestic and untidy. Papers everywhere and loads of shuffling through documents and getting lost.

We were facing the jury who all looked like nice people – and real, as opposed to all the characters in costume. I’d have loved to have a bit of a chat with them. But that is strictly not allowed. Jurors are only supposed to speak to each other if it’s anything to do with the case and nobody outside the jury should even think of trying to influence them outside the courtroom.

It was all a bit hilarious and a bit tedious at the same time.

And everybody’s a bit indiscreet.

You can talk to anybody in the lift – two barristers chatting about their case (not ours) as I was going to the loo (again – it was freezing) and one turns round and says “You’re not on the jury are you?”

And you think: Don’t you know what your jury looks like? And should you be talking about the case in front of just anybody?

On the way to the loos I meet a lady coming back with two coffees. “Do you work here?” I ask. “No I’m on trial!” she says. No special costume for the accused!

Our trial is going on for three months. At a snail pace. No wonder the wall paper in the corridor outside court seven is ripped, just where someone leaning in the corner every day for months will have started taking out their misery on the interior décor.

I have to go back to London for a special new stick so I guess I’ll be in court again soon. If you go, it’s court seven. Doors open at 10am and close when the judge decides but round about 4pm usually. Take sandwiches and a big jumper.


  1. Actually Christine, if you went to the offices and said that you were registered disabled and needed a seat you would be able to sit on seats close to the barristers without climbing stairs. I do this at CCC when I want to listen to certain cases. p.s I am registered disabled: I need a new hip and 2 new knees. I was asked to go up to the public seating area. Yes like I want to climb 2 flights of stairs. I went to the office. Clerk came into the court and insisted that I sit on the ground floor seats. Smile and speak nicely but not in a Fanet drawl. It gets you into the right places.

    • I did ask the clerk of the court really nicely for a chair. But it’s so crowded in there i don’t know where he would have put it. I’m afraid I don’t have a Thanet accent – I’m a Midlander and can’t lose my accent.

  2. I enjoyed this account. Why is the law so drawn out? On the few occasions I’ve attended in the public gallery I watched the judge making notes with his fountain pen. A plume would not have been out of place!

  3. A red judge sits in the higher Courts and is therefore very experienced.In view of the importance of the case, a judge who normally sits in the Crown Court was probably not deemed appropriate.
    You may hold that it is all fancy dress and rigmarole, but the alternative of ‘show trials’,’show biz trials’ (in the US), crony capitalist trials (Russia) or where the judiciary in many countries are suborned,jailed or disappeared, is worse far worse.
    Far from being the betrayers of the people,they are the upholders of the constitution and they deserve our respect and support when attacked by unthinking politicians and journalists.

    • My best friend is a solicitor so I do respect the law! When I was in hospital I had a booklet on what the different nurse’s uniforms and belts meant. That was very helpful in knowing who was supposed to do what. The red frock information is really helpful – thank you. Why does the judge wear a different wig?

  4. Very informative and entertaining Christine. Thank you. Hoping that justice will be well and truly served

  5. Everyone should be made to go to court when they are young to demystify it and consider the life-changing consequences for the many, perhaps themselves or usually the working classes and of course these days the homeless too! It costs a fortune! It’s in the name Crown Court.

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