BPTC graduate Richard Murtagh recently spent a week shadowing a judge at the Old Bailey. In the first of a short series, he recounts his experience.

For forty years, budding lawyers-to-be have been drawing inspiration from the classic TV series Rumpole of the Bailey (written by John Mortimer QC), which gives viewers a flavour of the Central Criminal Court – also known as London’s Old Bailey.

More recently, the period drama Garrow’s Law tells the true story of William Garrow: a young barrister at the Old Bailey who championed adversarial justice. And each day, newspapers report details of the most wicked crimes to be tried at that place. In short, for both lawyers and law students, the Old Bailey is a stage like no other.

Those who wish to see for themselves can turn up and watch from the public gallery. However, Inns of Court members wanting to get closer to the action may spend a week ‘marshalling’ – that is, sitting next to a judge on the bench.

Richard Murtagh
Richard Murtagh

I’m fortunate to have spent a week as a marshal after applying to my Inn (Middle Temple) for the placement. I shadowed three different judges in a range of cases.

For other prospective marshals, if staying in London is difficult, you could ask to sit for a single day, or at a court nearer to home.

Emerging from St Paul’s Tube Station on Monday, I felt a rush of excitement… and panic. This was no ordinary day! Within the hour, I could be sat before counsel, defendants, defendants’ family, witnesses, the press and the public. Surely, it wouldn’t be as easy as just “follow the judge” would it? But it was that easy – once the initial nerves had passed.

I observed the first day of a racial harassment trial, in which an MP had been the target of an abusive online campaign. The MP was called to give oral testimony against the defendant. The prosecution needed to show harassment according to the statutory definition. Hence, the MP was shown the various publications and asked to describe their impact.

On cross-examination, the defence sought to undermine this testimony. It was put to the MP that they had deliberately searched for the websites in question, and on finding them, felt angered as opposed to harassed. It was suggested that the MP had interpreted the publications as racist, when in fact, they were “a poor attempt at satire.” The MP disagreed, stating: “There’s a line between free speech and hate speech, and he [the defendant] clearly crossed it.”

I did not get to reflect on matters with the judge in chambers (as I would with other judges in the days to come), although I was allowed to view the offensive exhibits as the prosecution introduced them.

Also, being so close to the action, I could observe the demeanour of both witness and defendant as the uncomfortable prosecution evidence was brought to light, then tested by the defence on cross. Such a perspective would not have been possible from the public gallery.

So, I gained unique insight into a cutting-edge case.

Not bad for my first day!

Read Tuesday’s article here