By Daniel Cloake, 10th June 2021
“It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
So reads the infamous line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to justify the assertion that the all-important plans had indeed been on public display. I was reminded of this quote as I was traipsing around the Royal Courts of Justice looking for a Committal Hearing that purported to be held in public earlier today.
The proceedings had been advertised by the Open Justice Court of Protection Project, which advocates for public observation and scrutiny of the Court of Protection. Once described in 2006 as ‘shadowy’ and ‘the most secretive court in Britain’ by The Telegraph, great efforts have been made by the group to encourage members of the public (including health and social care professionals, law students, disability rights activists, academics, and families caught up in COP proceedings themselves) to witness and report on what they see.
What caught my eye was that this was a Committal hearing, proceedings described by Macdonald J as ‘essentially criminal in nature’ (Para 9) which can lead to the imprisonment of the alleged contemnor – a serious exercise of power by the court and worthy of public scrutiny.
The general rule as laid out in the Practice Direction on Committal for Contempt of Court in Open Court (“PD’s”) states at 5(1): “All committal hearings, whether on application or otherwise and whether for contempt in the face of the court or any other form of contempt, shall be listed and heard in public.
Such is the importance of Open Justice to this exercise of power that whilst the court does have Jurisdiction to sit in private, at the conclusion of a successful committal application the court must sit in public and give its reasons (PD’s at Para 13(1)). Para 13(2) states in no uncertain terms:
“There are no exceptions to these requirements. There are never any circumstances in which any one may be committed to custody or made subject to a suspended committal order without these matters being stated by the court sitting in public.“
The cause list showed this hearing as being held over MS Teams. However it transpired that it was in fact ‘attended’ and the parties would be sitting in court at 2pm. With that knowledge in mind, I doffed my face mask and made my way to Central London.
Unfortunately, upon arrival, the printed cause list on display at the RCJ still showed the case as being heard online. I enquired at the aptly named enquiries desk and was given a phone number for the Family Division who I was assured would assist me with my request. My phone tells me that the number was called a total of 8 times, going to voicemail after ringing out. Re-enquiring at the enquiries desk led to the advice “They’re normally held in the Queens Building”… and off I went.
Arriving there I was very conscious of the time. 13.58. Two minutes before I’d miss the start. I could see Court 40 was sitting, could this be the one? I peeked through the glass window on the door and googled the judge I was expecting (Hayden, J) so I could find an image to compare. No, not him.
I took the lift to floor 1M and enquired at my second enquiry desk of the day. “I’m here to observe the following case” I said handing over my notebook with the case number written on it. A few moments passed while she tapped at her computer – “Yes this one’s being heard on MS teams” she said. Ah. I explained the situation and she disappeared round the corner to seek advice. I look at my watch. The seconds are ticking by. She reappears. “Court 45 on Level 1”. I get back in the lift.
One final hurdle of the day – no, not a sign saying “Beware of the Leopard”, but one equally off-putting fixed within a permanent Perspex plaque.
“NO ENTRY TO THE PUBLIC SAVE FOR ACCREDITED PRESS/MEDIA REPRESENTATIVES”
With mortifying visions of proceedings being halted whilst I’m ejected, I catch the usher’s eye through the door and was helpfully directed to the public gallery at the back of the court.
The time was 14.07. The first time I have ever been late to a hearing.
I had as it turns out arrived at the half-way point – it finished some 8-minutes later.
“The threat of committal had achieved its objectives” said Mr Justice Hayden, describing it “as absolutely the last resort”. I had heard enough over the remaining eight minutes to speculate what may have occurred but certainly not enough to satisfy the requirements that reports should be accurate and fair.
An inaccurate cause list, two enquiry desks, a phone that never answered and a sign that said No Entry. I wonder if Arthur Dent would have been impressed?
Daniel Cloake is a blogger and news gatherer with a keen interest in law and the justice system. This post was originally published on his own site, “The Mouse in the Courtroom” (where you can read his many other blog posts). He tweets @MouseInTheCourt
Image by Dennis van Zuijlekom from Ermelo, The Netherlands, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons