Archive for April 2011
Sirloin steak or wild mushroom risotto? – The worries of a prosecution witness in the British Magistrates’ Court system
I had pretty much decided the theme of this week’s post, when a nostalgic flick through my digital photo album brought me to this photo from January.
It is of a friend standing outside The Grand, a “luxury hotel” in the centre of Bristol charging £115 a night for a single room with dinner and breakfast. He has come down from Manchester on an open return train ticket costing well in excess of £200.
Business trip? City break?
Erm, no. He and I were down in Bristol on 9/10 January 2011 to give evidence for the prosecution at Bristol Magistrates’ Court, in a trial for the heinous and socially destructive crime of “using threatening and abusive language or behaviour to provoke violence” (swearing threateningly). All expenses paid.
This doesn’t relate to me being “A Chelsea fan in Highbury”, and I don’t have a topical “peg” for it. Well, apart from Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s imminent court hearing this coming Wednesday, when a case implicating him with an underage prostitute will come to trial in Rome.
But although the blue form in the photo is a “CPS Expense Claim Form for Ordinary Witnesses”, the story behind all this is certainly not ordinary, and deserves to be told.
It started in mid-June 2010. We and a few others were cycling through Bristol. Trying to stay together without missing a green light, we took a left onto a main road, meaning the last of us in the pack prevented the oncoming traffic from moving off straight away after their lights went green.
A young man in a hatchback didn’t take kindly to this. When we pulled up next to each other at the next set of red lights, he got out of his car, “used threatening language/behaviour to provoke violence” and then sped through a red light. A bit of swearing, a few pushes, a bit of “I’m gonna beat you up”.
Unnecessary, uncivilised and, given he sped through a red light on a main road, probably worth reporting. But not Watergate or The Great Train Robbery.
Nonetheless, in a democracy the rule of law is absolute and applies to all. So if the statutes say that threatening and swearing at people is illegal, it goes to court.
Fair dos, but lets factor in something else: targets. The police love to be seen to be doing their job, and the Criminal Justice System loves to be seen to be working. Which of course means that the Crown Prosecution Service – the middle man – gleefully laps up easy-to-solve cases of little consequence like the one Ben and I were “victims” of.
So to bring the case of our midsummer cycling kerfuffle to court, the CPS waited on us hand and foot. A liaison officer from the Witness Protection Service, Jackie, gave us constant phone calls with emotional support and progress updates and, knowing we had both moved away from Bristol, booked our trains for the big day. Jackie was so nice to us that my friend remarked: “I might even add her on Facebook.”
It takes about three hours to give a statement in court. Arrive, get security checked, receive guidance, re-read police statements, tea and biscuits in the witness room while the solicitors wrangle over points of law, give evidence, go.
For this laborious, time-consuming chore, we’d been given free open returns to Bristol. So we made a day trip out of it. Pub lunch with friends, Man Utd v Liverpool on Sky Sports, even time for a cinema trip.
Then things got even sillier. As we walked out of the Bristol Odeon, I asked my friend where he was staying the night. I had stupidly missed a trick when I told the lovely Jackie over the phone three months ago that I could crash on my mate’s sofa. He laughed and informed me that the CPS’s hospitality towards him extended to a free night at The Grand Hotel in Broadmead, complete with a three-course dinner and breakfast.
We went our separate ways, and at around 8:30pm – dinner time – I received the following text:
“Ciabatta garlic bread followed by crumbed veal escalope. Tough this crime-fighting business!”
The morning after, we gave our evidence in court and a guilty verdict was reached. Another great day for criminal justice, another vindication of Avon & Somerset Police‘s crime fighting efforts, and another way to blag a free city break.
Oh, and another way to run up a huge budget deficit.