Inside justice: Court 1A, Glasgow Sheriff Court
The public benches are crammed with restless, anxious-looking people as court 1A opens for business at 9.30am on a Monday morning. Some have the drawn faces that speak of a hard life and many are sighing, betraying their suspicion that this will be a long wait. Many have been here before.
Here, in the bowels of Glasgow’s sheriff court, the weekend’s alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse and bail breachers are brought before Sheriff McKenzie and are dealt with quickly. Later, the sheriff will deal with cases previously deferred for social work reports and other inquiries.
Today, Sheriff McKenzie considers 54 cases, and his specialist domestic abuse court will sit till 5.40pm. Along the corridor, the spillover domestic abuse court, court four is still sitting till much later under the auspices of Sheriff Swanson. Upstairs, in court 14, the more time-consuming domestic abuse trials are unfolding.
Court 1a is mostly a procedural court – with a mix of sentence, intermediate diets and custodies – and its pace is speedy. The day begins with the deferred sentence court, and the sheriff is taken by the procurator fiscal’s narrative to Waterside Miners’ Club in Kirkintilloch where a group of friends are celebrating Hogmanay and ‘drinking alcohol’. But one man is making ‘unwelcome amorous advances’ on another man’s partner. After leaving the club, ‘an argument developed between the parties’ which led to the defendant smashing the windows of the amorous man’s car, causing £500 damage. He then grabbed his partner ‘by the throat with his right hand and pushed her up against the living room door’.
Upon being detained on New Year’s Day, the accused made relevant admissions and said: “It was handbags. It was more like a grab and a rollabout.” He told police it was a “load of shite” that he was running around waving a baseball bat.
The man’s defence solicitor tells the court that his client could not explain why he smashed the car, but it was ‘hot headed temper’. He regretted his behaviour and admitted that he pushed the whole atmosphere into one of ‘high temper, violence and vandalism’. The sheriff is told the two parties had ‘put the incident behind them’ and are ‘moving on with their life and have reconciled’. The accused is given a community payback order of 180 hours work to be done over the next six months. He will be subject to a supervision order for 12 months and must pay the car owner £500 in installments.
Housed in a small, windowless room, Glasgow’s specialist domestic abuse court is one of the busiest courts in the country and was set up in March 2009 after the Scottish government agreed that such violence need to be treated as a serious crime. It is the real crux of the work of the procurator fiscal’s domestic abuse unit, and similar courts are being set up across Scotland.
A multi-agency approach is taken at the court, with specialist prosecutors, police liaison officers, advocacy workers from Assist (Advocacy Support Safety Information Services Together) present. Here, the sheriff listens to cases where he can sentence offenders to no more than a year in custody. Anything more serious goes on petition.
A man who has been emailing and Facebook messaging abusive threats to his ex-girlfriend – “stop the texting or you are getting what’s coming to you – I will be taking it to your maw’s door in Saracen, ya wee cunt” – is fined a total of £700.
The sheriff has another man before him, a 28-year-old with scars all over his face and head, who became paranoid and anxious whilst locked inside his partner’s flat. The man smashed a coffee table, but claims he had a knife and a meat cleaver in his hands in the bedroom only because he was self-harming.
The man’s defence solicitor points out that his client has referred himself to the city addiction team for his serious alcohol problem. “One does tend to see that happen after a person attends court,” notes Sheriff McKenzie. The case is deferred for a full psychiatric assessment and the special bail conditions keeping the man away from his partner remain in place. Loud tutting is heard from the public benches as the man’s partner, who has been sitting in support, must leave before he can speak to her – she knows only too well that if he does so he will be in breach of his bail.
The sheriff hears the story of a man who rekindled a relationship with his partner via Facebook, but who became increasingly jealous and stopped allowing her to straighten her hair, put on perfume or go out without him, and was constantly accusing her of cheating. On the day in question the accused “became spitting mad” after cooking chicken nuggets and chips for her and their child, which they didn’t want. He began “storming about the bedroom” and threw an inhaler at his partner, calling her a “fucking slag” and grabbing a phone and throwing it at the bedroom wall. When his partner called the police, he shouted: “That will be the last thing you will fucking do.”
The court is told that the relationship is over and through Assist, is told that the partner wants “nothing more to do with the accused” and that she has asked for a non-harassment order be imposed. The man is given a 160-hour community payback order, reduced from 180 for his guilty plea. A non-harassment order is handed down to protect his partner for the next 12 months, but he will be allowed access to his child.
An elderly man who assaulted his wife has spent a night in custody, and uses a crutch in court. He is bailed for a supplementary social requirement report. The sheriff is told the 71-year-old was married for almost 50 years and had never offended until he was 69, when retirement left him feeling “useless”. But since then he has carried out a series of domestic abuse assaults on his wife, who is in her eighties. The man, described as “mortified”, is his wife’s only carer, and it’s a difficult case. He is bailed.
The deferred sentence cases are followed by the summary custody cases, and every defendant must be seen before a sheriff on the next working court day after their arrest.
And so the day goes on, all of it drilled by the sheriff’s clerk. Dozens of defence solicitors dip in and out of court, trying to gauge when their case will be heard, trying to catch the attention of the clerk. Some hover around the edges of the well of the court, their gowns making them seem like a flock of crows.
There’s a wait for papers, as the court is so fast some are still being prepared at the fiscal’s office across the street. Bail breach follows bail breach, with one man found in the bed of the woman he must stay away from. A woman has her case dismissed because of good behaviour and a male same-sex couple – co-accuseds – have their bail conditions removed so that they can be reunited. A man who has broken his bail conditions to see his children before they fly to India is admonished. Others – including a man whose brief claims he has learning difficulties and appears before the sheriff in tears. shuddering – have their bail opposed, and are led out of the dock in handcuffs.
A tiny 21-year-old skinhead is silenced as she tries to defend herself with “Aye but, see but”. She doesn’t seek bail and mutters “Home sweet home” when she’s safe in the knowledge she’s going back to prison.
A scar-faced accused turns and says “I love you” to his partner, who sits sobbing hysterically behind him. “You don’t speak in court,” the sheriff tells him. “I apologise your honour,” the man says, “but my partner is upset.” The sheriff replies: “She’s making that very evident.” The woman has been in court since 9.30am and has been told many times by court officers to stop talking. The man’s defence solicitor says his client has a record and he accepts this “does him no favours” but he will lose his tenancy if he is remanded in custody. The man is bailed. His partner continues to sob.
An accused with a prosthetic leg has his bail conditions changed so that he might live in the same, specially adapted house as his partner, who is the ‘complainer’ in his case. He is told that his new bail conditions mean that he must not talk about his case with her.
In the final case of the day, a man is fined £200 for stealing a mobile phone from his former partner after breaching bail conditions preventing him from being near her. Declaring that the day had not been as busy as he had expected, Sheriff McKenzie retires and the court is cleared and made ready for another busy day – in the knowledge that almost a quarter of all custody cases in Glasgow are in connection with domestic abuse.
This is the first of a series of occasional reports from courts around the country