Christine Tongue: Guidelines for court beginners

Christine pops into Southwark Crown Court

I don’t know about you but I hadn’t been to a court case since the 1970s when I shared an English class with an elderly Agatha Christie fan, who thought taking our foreign students to a murder trial at the Old Bailey was educational. The following week we went to the Mouse Trap, the longest running murder mystery ever in the West End.

Unlike today, there was no security for either event. For both court and theatre you just walked in and sat on a hard wooden bench in the gallery.

Now, if you want to watch our local drama unfurling in Southwark Crown Court you have to go through a bit of a ritual.

Our MP for South Thanet, Craig Mackinlay, is on trial, accused of submitting false expenditure declarations in the 2015 general election campaign, which he denies. He’s in Southwark Crown Court, court 7, fourth floor, usual start time is 10am.

It’s not a brilliant place for disabled access. You go to London Bridge and fight miserable commuters to get on and off the tube. Take the Tooley Street exit, turn right and it’s on your left.

Slippery pavement if it’s raining and about six steps up to the entrance to the court. There might be disabled access but I didn’t see it.

Revolving doors – stickies hate them as an enthusiastic person behind you can sweep you off your feet.

Then you’re met by the security staff where you have to open your bag and take a sip from any drink you have with you – more civilised than chucking it away like you have to in airports. A lady in front of me didn’t understand: “But I’m not thirsty,” she said. And the poor security man didn’t like to say, “it might be the chemicals for a bomb or poison” in case we all panicked. So he just said “Please!” and she did.

Then you go through a metal detector arch. I always set it off with my metal hip joint so a nice lad has to scan you personally with a kind of wand. And I get to wonder if I taught any of the staff years ago when I worked at Southwark College.

If I did, they’re a credit to me as most of them are lovely and after you’ve been a few times they treat you like an old friend.

You have to sign in with the date, time and why you’re there – to see my MP in the dock.

Then you get on a lift (middle one always seems broken) and go to the fourth floor. The lavs are on your left and the court is on your right. If you’re early everybody’s waiting outside (except the jury), accuseds, lawyers on both sides and public. All frantically sipping hot drinks as they’re only allowed water once inside.

Hot drinks you get from a kiosk on the ground floor, nice coffee, overpriced sandwiches and nothing for veggies or gluten free when I had a look. The Victoria sponge looked home made and luscious and I had a vision of the dignified wig wearers all having to make an undignified scramble for the only delicious thing in the building.

Best not talk to anyone. In Thanet, I know, you talk to everybody if you’re a lady over a certain age. But here is a bizarre universe where you don’t know who people are, and you may be chatting about why there’s no hand dryer in the ladies with a key witness in an important trial, trying to remember something crucial .

Witnesses have a tough time, I think – loads of unwieldy documents to deal with – all while STANDING UP!! Yes “taking the stand” means just that – not sitting down. Exhausting.

Courts are especially attractive for stationery fans. Who knew that lever arch files have not been superseded by the digital age?

In some cases they play a starring role. Huge things with millions of documents, which have to be carefully shuffled. You hear things like “it’s in jury bundle one behind flag 2”. If you have to take one out you’re in serious danger of snapping it shut on your fingers. Happened a lot in my office back in the day! I have the scars to prove it.

My respect for judges has escalated exponentially. They have to help the jury understand all this and keep track of all the packing-case-fulls of bits of paper.

If you go along, behave yourself and don’t get over-excited if you recognise a famous journalist in the public gallery (Michael Crick was there the first day). And don’t buy the mints – they have the worst kind, much too strong – but the Victoria sponge is to dream about.

The case continues.


  1. Christine – how come you have not mentioned the ticking off you got from the judge for attempting to talk to the jurors last week? Are you aware of the contempt of court principle? Is the editor of The Isle of Thanet News aware of the warning you received? Does your editor really believe you are the most appropriate person to be performing this role for our local online newspaper? Jim Bob From Broadstairs.

    • Hi Jim, this is a column which is not an account of actual proceedings, there are separate court report articles for that. Christine’s column does not breach contempt rules

  2. Thank you Christine for this wonderful lyrical description of court proceedings. It is good to know you are keeping an eye on our local MP Mckinley’s route through his prosecution and what we all hope will be justice served, keep up the wonderful work

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