Magazine article The Spectator

Holding Court

Magazine article The Spectator

Holding Court

Article excerpt

When Bow Street magistrates court closed last Friday, 271 years of legal history came to an end; Radio Four broadcast a programme about it on its last day.

The building is to become what was described as a 'boutique' hotel, whatever that is. Oscar Wilde, Casanova, Sir Roger Casement, William, Lord Haw-Haw, Joyce, Dr Crippen, the Kray twins, Ernest Saunders, Ronnie Biggs and Jonathan Aitken are among those -- the high and the low, the drunks, shoplifters and flashers -- who've stood before a magistrate, though the wrought-iron dock is only 125 years old.

I, too, appeared there once on a carelessdriving charge, of which I was acquitted.

It was the early 1970s. I was familiar with courts as a journalist and so I wasn't in awe of them. I even knew the lawyers' jargon that so impresses magistrates and so I defended myself. It was clear, I told the magistrate in full barrackroom-lawyer flood, that there was 'a conflict of evidence here'. You can't go wrong with that phrase as there's nearly always a conflict of evidence but the magistrate seemed impressed. 'Furthermore, ' I intoned pompously, clutching my lapels like a cut-price barrister hanging on to his gown, 'the police have made a factual error.' They had actually made up something but it was more prudent, I found, not to accuse them of lying. Or it was then, anyway.

The case was brought after I had overtaken a Jaguar lumbering along by Knightsbridge barracks. The driver took exception to this and pursued me up Park Lane, drawing alongside me at the traffic lights by the Dorchester. We raced across the other carriageway, my sporty little Fiat 850 accelerating ahead until the power of the Jag roared in. The road by the Dorchester was narrowed by parked cars and inevitably, with neither giving way, we collided.

We'd have simply exchanged details but, unfortunately, a policeman was strolling along Park Lane and booked us both. Just as I was leaving the scene, the other driver invited me to his office in Mayfair to explain that he couldn't afford another endorsement as he would lose his licence under the totting-up system. Perhaps we could agree on a joint defence? I would have pleaded not guilty anyway, so was happy to oblige. And that's how we both got off. …

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