The Justice Machine

The pattern of sentencing and conviction in Dublin's District Court relies as much on the legal knowledge of the gardai, the sharpness of the solicitors, the demeanour of the defendants and the personal views of the judge as it does on criminal law. MARK BRENNOCK reports.

The footsteps on the stairs leading up from the BridewellJ tunnel into the middle of Dublin District, Court number Six grew louder until the dark skinned moustachioed defenndant emerged at the top and looked around the court. A garda directed him tosfand in front of the judge's) bench as the prosecuting guard gave the routine evidence of arrest.

"You have a right to be tried before this court or before a judge and jury," said District Justice Delap. "Which do you want?"

"This court, your honour."

"And do you plead guilty or not guilty?"


"The prosecuting guard outlined the facts of the case. He had been on patrol at lam on Dawson Street when he saw the defendant put his heel through the glass paflel at the bottom of a door; causing damage to the value of £100.

The judge was horrified. "This is a .case of blackguardism for the sake of blackguard ism," he said angrily.

The defending solicitor got up to plead for his client. He had no previous convictions, he said. On the night in question he had drink taken and had had some quarrel with his common law wife when he put his foot through the door in temper.

"Vandalism for the sake of vanndalism," exclaimed the judge.

At this stage, the prosecuting guard decided to say a few words on behalf of the defendant. The defendant had been very cooperative, he .assured the judge, and he had agreed to pay com: pensation. The defending solicitor looked.for an adjournment for a proobation report.

"I'm not adjourning the matter," said the judge.

The solicitor had a last go. His client was unemployed, he said, having recently lost his job, and he had a total income of £31.50 per week. He was the type of person who had never been in trouble with the law before, had never been before a court.before and never would be again.

The judge asked if any of the cornnpensation had yet been paid. The soliicitor said that it had not, due to his client's low income, but that he would start paying it as soon as he could. The judge said that he had no time for that kind of excuse. The defendant sat with his hands joined tightly in fron t of him, looking more nervous, more tense.

"This," repeated the judge, "is a case of blackguardism for the sake of blackguardism. It is the type of crime which would never have been detected had the guard not been passing - the innocent taxpayer would have been left to foot the bill. Six months immprisonment. "

The footsteps on the stairs leading down to the Bridewell tunnel faded away as the criminal left the courttroom to begin serving his sentence. The whole process had taken just over three minutes.

Day after day, a stream of people appear in Dublin District Courts four and six, charged with petty offences ranging from larceny and shopliftting to joyriding and assault. The vast majority of defendants are young and unemployed, and most are represented by solicitors from the free legal aid panel.

The procedure is routine and quick.

The garda gives evidence of arrest, the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty. The garda outlines the facts of the case and is usually cross examined by the defending solicitor, who looks for. inconsistencies in the evidence, techhnical flaws in the arrest, or indeed anyything that might get the client off. If the judge convicts (he does in the vast majority of cases) the solicitor speaks in mitigation, saying that the defendant has never been in trouble before, or is unemployed, from a broken home, has expressed remorse, has offered to pay compensation, etc.

The judge then passes sentence, usually making some comment on the case. Comments last week ranged from "you seem to be a genuine fellow" to "it appears to me that you're nothing more than a savage." The judge can send the defendant to jail for a total of two years.

The whole procedure can take less than five minutes. Very little can be heard by those in the public gallery at the back of the court, and often it is clear that the conduct of the trial is passing over the head of the defenndant. Many defendants appear totally disinterested in the proceedings and most show no emotion when being either sent to jail or being released.

The courts themselves are large, high ceilinged rooms, which despite having been recen tly painte d appear drab, dreary and depressing. The judge sits behind a long wooden desk on a raised wooden platform. Just in front of the judge and on a slightly lower level sits the court clerk. To one side is the witness box and to the other is the press box, i~' which probaation officers also sit.

The solicitors sit in their suits - in stark contrast to their clients' custoomary scruffy jeans and jumpers - at a bench directly in front of the judge, and behind the solicitors is a microophone stand, behind which the defenndants sit - they must stand when the judge addresses them. The defendants' position is conveniently close to the staircase which leads to the Bridewell tunnel.

At the back of the court are three long benches. This is the public gallery where friends, relatives and voyeurs sit. The public gallery is watched closely by a garda who regularly approaches individuals to tell them to stop chewing gum, to get their feet off the benches, to stop talking or to sit down. This garda also tells defendants to take their hands out of their pockets. Defendants coming up from the Brideewell stairway invariably scan the public gallery looking for familiar faces beefore facing the judge. Within a few minutes they will either go back down the stairs, or out the door to Chancery Place and freedom.

In theory the District Courts are dispensing justice in accordance with a complex and refined code of criminal law, recently further amended by the Criminal Justice Act. A few days observing the District Courts, however, reveals a muddled pattern of sentencing and conviction, which relies as much on the legal knowledge of the prosecuuting guard, the sharpness of the defennding solicitor, the demeanour of the defendant and the personal views of the judge, as it does on criminal law .

At 10.15am , groups of people begin to congregate in the Bridewell yard, close to the two doors which lead into courts four and six. Defendants get last words of encouragement from friends and families, and advice from solicitors. Solicitors approach gardai, as one solicitor put it "to tell the guard that your client is sorry for kicking his teeth in and ask would he not consider entering a lesser charge to give him a chance."

Behind the wire grilles and bars high on the wall of the Bridewell are the defendants who are kept in cusstody. These individuals will make their way to court through an underground tunnel, finally appearing at the top of a stairway in the middle of the courttroorr. .

Close to IO.30am, those outside move into the court. Solicitors sit at their bench in front of the judge. Gardai stand or sit around the side. Members of the public sit on benches atthe back. The judge appears. Everyyone stands. The judge sits down. Everyone else sits down. The court clerk calls the first case and the busiiness begins.

Much of the morning is taken up with cases to be remanded for trial at a later date. Defendants appear before the court for a few minutes, and the judge decides whether to give them bail or keep them in custody for a week.

The tall, thin defendant with tightly cropped hair was almost out the door before the judge had finished announncing that he was being remanded.

"Remanded until April twenty-fif...

Hey! Come back."

The defendant stopped at the door, looked around and made his way back with a puzzled look on his face.

"Remanded until April twenty-fifth, court six, two pm , continuing bail."

The defendant was half way out again. "Come back!" shouted the judge. The defendant looked more puzzled. "Stand there."

"Remanded until April twenty-fifth, court six, two pm ... (pause) in cusstody." Before the judge looked up the defendant had shrugged his shoulders and started down the stairs to the Bridewell.

"Where's he gone? Hey! ... Come up ... Hey!" A head reappeared at the top of the stairs.

"What?" asked the defendant immpatiently.

The judge sighed. "You're on bail.

Get out." The defendant gave a last bemused shrug of the shoulders and left.

At the end of the morning's busiiness, the judge hears from those who wish to stand bail for people who have appeared earlier in the morning. Bailsspeople get into the witness box, take

the oath and are quizzed about their relationship to the defendant, their marital status, their criminal record and their means. Bank books and post office books are examined by the judge, who then accepts or rejects the bailsperson. Sometimes a judge will explain why someone is not being accepted. Other times he will simply say "I'm not accepting you," giving no reason.

Some judges will always refuse bail if a defendant has failed to turn up for. a court hearing. Others will first listen to the excuse, and will occasionally accept it as being genuine. The only legal criterion which must be used is "is the applicant likely to stand his trial?" According to a Supreme Court judgement, "if yes then he should be granted bail and set at liberty." It is entirely up to the District Justice to decide "is the applicant likely to stand his trial."

It was almost lunchtime, and a solicitor was trying to get bail for his client, a traveller from Monaghan. The client had arrived late for his court appearance that morning, and so the judge had remanded him in custody, presumably because of a belief that he wouldn't tum up for his trial.

The solicitor told the judge that the traveller had been an hour late arriving in court, due to the fact that his car had broken down on the way from Monaghan. He assured the judge that his client had intended to turn up.

The prosecuting garda also gave evidence on behalf of the defendant, saying that he had known him for years, that he was a genuine guy. His hands had been covered with oil when he finally arrived, substantiating his story that his car had broken down, and that he had been delayed while he was repairing it. The garda said that he accepted the excuse as genuine, and that if the defendant was kept in cusstody his children would be unattended.

"I don't accept the excuse," said the judge. "Bail refused." The defence accepted the excuse. The prosecution accepted the excuse. The judge did not. The children remained unattended.

Most of the real decisions are made in the afternoon. Cases which have been remanded come up for trial, books of evidence have been served, solicitors have been briefed and innstructed, gardai have prepared their cases.

For the defendant, the choice of solicitor is all important. Those who know the ropes will choose one of a small number who have been tried and proven - the same names crop up again and again. The uninitiated are assigned a solicitor at random from the legal aid panel.

YOU can't afford to drink during the week." One of the most successful and sought after solicitors practicing in the District Court was explaining the secrets of performing well and gaining a good reputation. The handful of very busy solicitors spend their day darting from court to court, from case to case, attempting to pick holes in evidence, challenging the validity of arrests, pleading for leniency on behalf of clients, watching, waiting, concentrating on the evidence, looking for any garda .slip-up in order to pounce and get their client off. Watching a case progress one can usually predict the verdict. Listening to the solicitor's plea for leniency one can often predict the sentence. Seeing a solicitor suddenly and totally unnexpectedly reverse the course of a trial can bring to life an otherwise dull day.

It was late in the afternoon when the young man accused of robbing two Spanish tourists appeared in the court. The previous week he had appeared before the court without legal represenntation. If he pleaded not guilty, the garda had advised him, he would be remanded in custody. What the garda did not tell him was that within a week the Spanish tourists would have gone home, and so would not be able to give evidence against him. He pleaded guilty.

Now he had an experienced and able solicitor, who was telling the judge that his client wanted to change his plea to not guilty. The judge didn't like it. He said that because evidence had been heard in the case already, the

plea could not now be changed. The solicitor said that no evidence had been heard. The judge insisted that it had. The solicitor repeated his view that no evidence had been heard, and that therefore his client was perfectly entitled to change his plea. "With respect," said the solicitor. He knew he was onto a winner.

"All right," hissed the judge. "If that's the way you want it. Dismissed." The defendant walked out the door. The judge seemed livid.

Other solicitors do drink during the week. One morning last week, a soliciitor had three consecutive cases in one of the courts. He got names of wittnesses wrong, he asked questions in cross examination which had clearly been answered before. He couldn't find bits of paper in his file, and was warned twice by the judge to refrain from being caustic and to confine himmself to straight cross examination. He scrub bed his eyes regularly and resorted to blustering. It didn't work. The three clients went to jail.

"I've a splitting fucking headache this morning," he told this reporter afterwards. "I can't operate today." He explained that he had been at a party the night before, and had been mixing whiskey and Guinness - an unwise thing to do, he assured this reporter. "A recipe for disaster." He said that he was going home to bed. His clients were going to prison.

" ... and all I can say, in conclusion is that my client has been in and out of institutions from an early age, has not had a job for a long time, and coming as he does from a very unstable family background he has never been given a chance. Perhaps you might see fit to give him that chance now justice." The solicitor sat down.

He knew he hadn't a hope.

The defendant was up on several charges together and had a string of previous convictions. The judge gave two twelve-month sentences. Under the recently enacted Criminal Justice Act these sentences can run consecuutively, amounting to a total of two years imprisonment. The judge made them run cc nsecutively.

"This is the first man against whom I have used the provisions of the Crimiinal Justice Act," said the judge to the solicitor. "Your client has made hisstory, I suppose."

"I'm sure that that will be some small consolation to him," said the solicitor.

The judge glared, then allowed himself a smile. A ripple of mirth spread through the public gallery. The solicitors smiled. The gardai smiled. Even the defendant smiled.

At times, it seems as if nobody takes the District Court seriously. •