Snaresbrook Crown Court has a quirky entrance. Instead of trudging through a bland car park, pedestrians walk through a narrow gap in a heavy steel gate, darkly overhung with trees. A handwritten sign warns non pedestrians to keep away. I could see no door in the abandoned gate lodge nearby. The drive curved round to the left, past a large expanse of green with glittering water at one end, to the main door of a vast Victorian orphanage. Inside, the long line of silent seated figures were jurors. So began my first day shadowing His Honour Judge Shanks.
There are not enough women or solicitors on the Bench and we are being encouraged to "have a go" and consider a judicial career. The Judicial Shadowing Scheme enlightens those with little or no experience of the Crown Court. When I followed the judge into the first hearing, he cheerfully explained I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a Recorder and everyone was to be on their best behaviour. The barristers smirked and the prosecutor quipped that his trial was "an ideal Recorder exercise".
It was a part-heard sex case. The defendant was charged with serially raping his wife. When viewing the complainant's police interview the day before, the accuracy of the interpreter's translations had been questioned. It was decided an agreed translation was to be provided later and the hearing was adjourned. We left the court, and its claret red carpet, to have a cup of tea while a new case was found. The judge was kind enough to give the impression one or two of my questions were pertinent and my confidence soared.
Next was a sentence: a two handed theft, burglary and robbery. Both defendants had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity and so were entitled to one third discounts. Calculating the length of the prison terms was a difficult exercise, which seemed similar to quantum calculations in cases of multiple injury. There are stringent sentencing guidelines, depending on the severity of the offence, akin to the Judicial College guidelines. Perhaps I could get the hang of this. Child abduction and the possession of cleavers and antique guns followed.
At lunch I approached the judges' dining room with apprehension. Would I be able to think of anything to say? It was somewhat alarming to find myself talking away in near normal fashion when only half way through the soup.
The judge was encouraging and the court staff very engaging. One clerk explained how much she loves the job after thirty years. She operates four different IT and case management systems and successfully manned a hearing by video link while I was there. During her long career, when more than one defendant had dropped his trousers in the dock, she had remained unfazed. Another had leaped to freedom, only to be apprehended shortly before attempting to swim across the lake.
As I walked out past the gate lodge, the leaves seemed a brighter green but I still could not find any door.