Image via WikipediaDowning Centre Local Courts, SydneyIt’s perhaps a little known fact, but most courthouses are actually open to the public. It is apparently a long-standing common law tradition that justice must be delivered in plain view.
Reflecting the old adage that:
“… it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance, that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
In fact, I read one source which claims that the tradition of the “open court” dates back to Norman England.
Which means that, generally, a member of the public can (and in fact has a right to) enter a courthouse and sit-in on any particular case that happens to be “showing”. Just like in a cinema - except that it’s free. Of course, this isn’t an absolute right, there are types of cases which are exceptions to this rule and courts are able to make a “suppression order” if they feel it is in the “public interest” or the “interests of justice” that the details of a case aren’t made available to the public at large - and then of course some cases are just mind-numbingly boring and completely incromprehensible to the lay-person and are thus, closed to the public by de facto.
In any case, last week I made a trip to the Downing Centre Local Courts in Sydney. Where I witnessed the sundry specimens of humanity that find themselves caught-up somehow or another in the legal system.
There was the petite woman of 19 who was served an AVO - that is, an Apprehended Violence Order - incredible as it seemed to me. In fact it took me some 10 minutes to realise that she was the one who had perpetrated the violence in a domestic with her boyfriend. She began her case waiting for her solicitor to arrive - it would seem counsel for the defendant from the Legal Aid office was late. Apparently, she had been drinking - and drugs had been consumed, with her boyfriend one Friday or Saturday when the assault took place, she had a hazy memory of the night, only remembering that she woke-up in a paddy-wagon. She had also assaulted the arresting officers it turned-out. I looked at her; “her?” I thought, “she’s tiny.” I decided she must’ve had a weapon, a knife or something.
“Assault is a serious offence” intoned the judge, “a punch is an act of violence”.
“A punch? She punched her boyfriend and he is serving her with an AVO?” I looked at her a third time: “her?”.
Well who am I judge?
There were the two hoteliers who had not complied with the correct procedures for signage of a licensed premises. They had a confident and well-spoken lawyer, who certainly didn’t show-up late, but when he sat down you could see that he was wearing bright red socks. I spotted them all together chatting and laughing after the case - even though they’d lost.
I saw two matters of the “morning after the night before” - drink driving incidents where the accused had been found to still have an illegal level of alcohol in his and her bloodstreams respectively on the afternoon of the next day.
And I saw a grizzled-old security guard, built like a tank, he looked like one of those old square-shaped and boxy looking Land Rovers that you still see around sometimes, solid.
Who needs movies hey?
Just remember that there are some rules regarding behaviour in a courtroom and it’s not all etiquette. You must bow to the magistrate or judge when entering and when exiting the courtroom, you must turn off your mobile phone and aren’t to eat or drink in a courtroom. You cannot take notes in a courtroom without permission and you likewise cannot bring cameras into a court.
Also remember to be respectful - these are real people, their friends and family.