The adventure of the empty public gallery

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The adventure of the empty public gallery

What can the public see in today’s hastily improvised, virus-adapted virtual courts?

Not much. The public gallery has for the most part been removed.

Today’s lucky dip is in the Court of Appeal. Selected cases have been streamed from here since November 2018. The service has been suspended for the duration, but one exception is Hoareau & another v The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. This concerns citizens of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean seeking to return to the islands following eviction by the UK to enable the US to build its Diego Garcia naval facility.

You are not allowed to reproduce court footage. Here is what remains after I’ve taken out the incriminating bits, plus some more to be on the safe side. Yes, I know we don’t want people adding a dub reggae soundtrack, or editing a judge’s words to make it sound as if he said X instead of Y. I get that. So I guess we’re lumbered for now.

To test the water for virtual jury trials in a self-distancing age, the campaigning body JUSTICE has been conducting mock hearings. It declared that the one on 6 May would have ‘particular emphasis on how to recreate the solemnity of the court, and the rituals that contribute toward it.’ But, even if you leave aside the overalls-and-spanner aura of the event itself, that whole idea is blown out of the water once you plonk a hearing down in the foetid bone-strewn cave that is YouTube. Your recommendations down the side will be a model of good taste but I’ve redacted some of mine. I am the thirteenth viewer present. Each participant (wigless and gownless) is separately boxed. A muted solicitor lurks in a blacked-out rectangle. The dolls’ house look evokes Play School for anyone old enough. The sound is tinny and distorted; some words are lost.

In one rectangle the Master of the Rolls sits on a chair placed asymmetrically beneath the royal coat of arms. The rectangle to his right is a blurry, glaring, flashing representation of migraine, not safe for anyone with epilepsy. Compiled by some offstage Drosselmeyer (possibly a hard-pressed individual taking terrible risks to be at work) it contains a patchwork of four scenes, stitched together on one master screen. What we are seeing is a close-up film of this screen. The second-hand nature of the image accounts for the Vaseline-on-the-lens look.

I can see that people are trying very hard in ghastly circumstances and I am sure that things will improve.

Lord Justice Green has a half-timbered ceiling. We hear the reassuring tones of Sir James Eadie QC, appearing for the Secretary of State. His backlit features are hard to discern. He has obviously taken television training to heart and is keeping his head still. Unnaturally still. In fact… I think of Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House. To foil a would-be assassin, the great detective commissions a wax bust of himself so that he can appear silhouetted in his Baker Street window. The bust is occasionally moved by the faithful Mrs Hudson, keeping out of view. Could Sir James…? But no, his image has just frozen for the duration, like so much else of life.

Illustration by the great Sidney Paget

The virus has inevitably restricted court access for the public, and those people who can’t get online simply don’t exist. My one attempt so far to join the public in observing a hearing shared on meetings software was met by an unexplained refusal. It was however illustrated in sepia tones from memory, to comply with the law, by a court artist and I’m not allowed to show you that image either, because of copyright.

Those who are trying to widen access for all kinds of observers include Transform Justiceand The Transparency Project