I have two pictures of Justice in my head. The first is from Alice in Wonderland with the oft quoted cry from the Queen of Hearts of “Off with their heads” The second is the laying of the “black cap” on the head of the judge in the Dennis Price and Sir Alex Guinness film of Kind Heart and Coronets when the sentence of death by the hangman’s noose is passed on the would be Duke who disposed of his ancestors in line before him to the title.
My invitation to join the Sheriffs at lunch in the Old Bailey was eagerly accepted as although I have had the good fortune to dine with judges of the commercial and civil courts and tribunals, the prospect of discussing real life Eastenders was something that very much appealed to my curiosity.
I was not to be disappointed with my greeting being champagne in the Chambers of The Alderman and Sheriff Dr Andrew Parmley supported by Alderman Sir Roger Gifford and the Secondary and Under Sheriff Mr Charles Henty with the latter responsible for running the Old Bailey as a Court on a daily basis.
The tradition of the Sheriffs running the criminal justice side of London goes back to time immemorial with the Office of Sheriff being much older than that of the Lord Mayor with recorded references in Saxon times and beyond.
Lunch was a colourful and noisy affair with the 15 judges, including the Recorder of London, in their gowns and wigs all eager to meet with their four guests of which I was one. The lunch itself was relatively Spartan and quick given the judges were all sitting and had but an hour to finish their vittals but the conversation was rich and very satisfying. The nature of the discussion forbids it being repeated but all four judges sitting around me were dealing with murder.
Interestingly although the death sentence is no longer available as punishment for convicted murderers in the UK the judges still wear the black cap on ceremonial duties and in particular on the day the Lord Mayor is installed in office.
The afternoon was more sobering when I sat in on a case of a harrowing sex crime case with children involved. Suddenly the pomp and circumstance, the good natured and witty banter over lunch with judges of real character was forgotten and the true nature of justice and the crimes of society with all its sadness and negativity was brought home to me with a sledge hammer. I arrived in the morning happy and enthusiastic. I left somewhat deflated and under no illusions that life is stranger than fiction and far more real than Eastenders!
Graham F. Chase Master