Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Justice Project (Twitter ye not)

Twitter in the courts? The concept is antithetical to lawyers. We servants of the court eschew exposure, espouse confidentiality, we do our dirty tricks in private. Our paper darts and legal daggers work far better away from public scrutiny.

And to be blunt, 140 characters a case is not sufficient to justify our juicy wages. “But My Lord, our fees!”- Devotees of Private Eye will recognise Mr Justice Cockle-Carrot, who always extends the case beyond lunchtime so that posh boys in wigs can justify their cash. Yet here I was, participating in a project where messages would be sent to the world in real time from the courtroom.

With me is The Justice Gap's own Jon Robbins, here for the Guardian in a project to send tweets throughout the day.

Our first hurdle is that journalists being able to twitter in Court (with permission from the Judge) is brand spanking new, and moreover confined to cases heard in open court. Thus, in criminal or employment trials, to name but two, where members of the public are entitled to attend anyway, Jon can send his little chunks of data onto that yellow-brick road that is the internet for all to see.

However in home repossession cases the hearings are in private, for a very good reason. The legal issues involve the prospect of loss of a home, which like the right to a family life and correspondence that has not been intercepted, is a qualified right enshrined in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. This is the right to family, home and privacy.

I sweat about what we are doing the night before. Will I make a tit of myself to readers in Singapore or Siberia? What the heck am I doing?

Fortunately Stephen, a stalwart Duty Solicitor for over 30 years catches that ball in the morning shift, before I'm due to start. He has a word with the Ushers, then a word with the District Judges, who don't mind the challenge.

At the same time, over at Romford County Court another journalist on the same project is barred from all the hearings.We must be doing something right.

Working as a duty solicitor in a housing court in Hackney is remarkably different to the world of Cockle-Carrott. District Judges have 5 to 10 minutes or so to decide whether someone will lose their home.

Rita has lived in her council flat for 17 years. Her mother is very ill . Rita knows how to cook, that's her job. When she goes to take care of her mum instead of working she can't pay the mortgage. She is £4k behind but has over £100k in equity. Result? "Out on your ear or sell your home in eight weeks."

“This will affect the rest of my life”says Rita, and Judge is harsh but fair. “Sell up or pony up” the Judge says (I paraphrase). Rita doesn't understand, and I hope we have enough time for her to make the right decision together.

Bob has kids and a marital break-up. He sends wads of cash here and there, now child support for his kids, now his rent. He assures me he is ashamed at the thought of accessing benefits, and so he did not get the help he was entitled to when he needed it. He's a second generation immigrant, with the sparkle of an entrepeneur in his eye.

I want to swat him on the back of the head, 'cos he's been paying tax and NI into the system for years. When he loses his job he's legally entitled to certain benefits and tax credits.

Yet, I respect him. No-one has handed the world to him on a plate, and here is a person that will pull himself up by his boot-straps, and the rest of us with him incrementally.

Jon's thumbs blur on the tiny device he is holding.

In the last case of the day a young refugee, let us call him Ishmael, makes a Lazarus application. Evicted this morning, he seeks to revive his tenancy from the dead. I play Captain Ahab, ranting about the great white whale, yet I know in my heart that I am sunk and floating on a coffin.

It seems to me that the intrusion on matters that affect the home and family should rarely be sampled by the media. It seems to me that private agony at the loss of your home, or the intrusion of the state into your correspondence should not be paraded by all and sundry.

Yet, antithetically, if the world knew how casually you might lose your home, 140 characters to your neighbours or the Judge would not be enough to explain. 

Score draw? Duty Solicitor 10 saves, two replays, one loss on penalties. Curiously, equal to the win rates of both Roberto di Matteo and Gus Hiddink in their spells at Chelsea football club at time of writing.

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