Britain – its churches, private schools, political parties and more – ‘on trial’ in lawyer-fest
This is where, for many years to come, the UK state and a lot of its public bodies will face accusations that they failed many of the nation’s children fundamentally. This is the courtroom where the overarching inquiry into child sex abuse (CSA) is holding its hearings.
This is Court 73.
Many of the oak-panelled courtrooms of the Royal Courts of Justice – an imposing, Victorian, Gothic-style building on the Strand, near where Westminster meets the City – are lined with large, leather-bound tomes full of old judgements.
But Court 73 looks more like a large meeting room than a courtroom. With whitewashed walls, it is furnished with modern, light-teak desks.
It is where Lord Justice Leveson held his inquiry into newspaper practices in 2011-2.
The New Zealand judge who is chairing the CSA inquiry, Lowell Goddard, has already hit a problem that plagued Leveson: Court 73’s dire acoustics.
During a hearing last week, Goddard said: “I have had a request – addressed to myself, as well as to all counsel – to please keep our voices up because the acoustics in the room make it difficult for people in the back of the public gallery to hear.”
Desmond Browne, one of more than 20 lawyers there to represent interested parties, said: “Do not reproach yourself, madam. Lord Justice Leveson had precisely the same problem.”
Goddard sits at the front, on the higher of two raised benches. The clerk to the inquiry, an usher and other administrative staff are on the second raised bench, also looking into the room.
Facing Goddard are three rows of the light-teak desks. In the middle of the front row is Ben Emmerson, counsel to the inquiry, flanked by other barristers who assist him. Either side of them are lawyers who represent “core participants”, parties or individuals who are strongly relevant to the subject matter of the hearing.
Behind them are two rows of lawyers and some of the core participants. Through their lawyers, core participants can make representations to the inquiry and, in time, can question witnesses. CSA survivors are among the core participants. And behind them are two blocks of about 35 seats – one area for the media, the other for the public.
There has been some effort to make it not feel like a courtroom. But with serried ranks of lawyers, albeit without wigs and gowns, it will be intimidating for many witnesses, especially survivors of abuse.
And the lawyers themselves can briefly forget that they are not in court.
At the first preliminary hearing a fortnight ago, for the investigation into the institutional response to allegations against the late former Labour MP, Lord Janner, one barrister addressed a point made by Emmerson. The barrister began: “The question my learned friend”, before correcting himself, “falling into court tendencies, apologies. The suggestion being made by Mr Emmerson…”
As inquiry counsel, Emmerson has been doing most of the talking. But often rather quietly.
Goddard’s main job, so far, has been repeatedly to peer over her black-rimmed glasses to tell Emmerson to speak louder as his voice became little more than a whisper.
At the start of the second hearing, on Anglican churches, Emmerson said: “I have a note in front of me saying, ‘Speak up.’”
Goddard: “Please keep your voice up.”
But it was not long before she had to remind him: “Keep your voice up.”
When he asked later whether he could turn to the unresolved issue about broadcasting any of the hearings, Goddard replied: “Yes, but keep your voice up, please.”
The fourth preliminary hearing is tomorrow, and will focus on children in care in Lambeth.
So far at least, there is no witness box in Court 73. But there have been no witnesses yet.
There is also no dock.
But many UK institutions find themselves in the metaphorical dock that hangs heavily in the air of Court 73. Britain is on trial here.
There can be no physical dock. It would not be big enough for everyone who needs to go in it.
Related Stories : Child sex abuse, ‘Fernbridge’ and ‘Fairbank’: Exaro story thread