Back in the saddle
Morning secret emailers. I missed being in court last week. It’s funny what you get used to.
Today is Day 12 of what will be a 15 day trial. In terms of scale, I have it on good authority it is the largest civil trial happening in the UK right now. It was originally scheduled for 20 days, and technically will still last that long, but court is only sitting for 15 of them. Days -2 and -1 were reading days for the judge, as was Tuesday – Thursday last week, which also gave the QCs time to prepare their closing submissions, which is what this week is all about.
My understanding is that for the next four days two men will spend five hours a day on their feet (two days each), talking to the judge.
The “impressive” Patrick Green, QC for the claimants, will go first. Then the “extremely capable” David Cavender, QC for the Post Office, will take up Wednesday and Thursday. Both men have resonant, slightly plummy voices and that wonderful, exaggerated courteousness that the conventions of court demand. Quite how I’ll feel after listening to four days of them speak, I have no idea.
Incidentally, I was told by a reliable source last week that both Mr Cavender and Mr Green and the presiding judge, the Honourable Mr Justice Fraser, have all served in the Royal Marines. It turns out that this indeed is the case.
I’m not sure why so many Royal Marines go into law (maybe this trial is just a freak occurrence), but the mental toughness, exactitude and determination to win that a gruelling court case demands has to come from somewhere, I guess. After all, judges give orders, and they must be followed. By all of us.
It is easy to get taken by the romance of court and its quaint conventions, or to gently mock it, especially when you have no skin in the game. But for some people, this is a deadly serious business. It is an attempt to claw back their dignity, reputation, standing and yes, money from a government-owned institution which they feel has treated them not just abominably, but unlawfully.
Every time I look around the court, from the ushers to the clerks to the transcribers to the lawyers, from the Post Office employees in the public seating area to the hacks on the press benches, I am reminded that the only people in the room not getting paid are the claimants. These former Subpostmasters, some of whom have stood in a dock, accused of criminal offences themselves, have been sitting quietly throughout proceedings, soaking up everything as it happens.
For many claimants, just being there can bring back painful memories. When I speak privately to them before and after proceedings, the raw emotion isn’t very far from the surface. Tears come easily and have to be fought back.
But the claimants do draw strength from being with each other. There is a Pret A Manger at the end of the Rolls Buildings. One day a couple of weeks back I was in there to get breakfast. I spotted a gaggle of claimants who had come down for the day. There were six of them, all female, all middle-aged, all enjoying the opportunity to spend some time together, nattering over a warming cup of tea. Claimants don’t meet each other very often because of their work commitments, disparate geographical locations and straightened circumstances. When they do meet up (and I have seen these meetings on a few occasions now), it can be superficially quite jolly.
I knew most of the women around the table, but I was introduced to one claimant, Wendy Buffrey, who had never spoken to the media before. We had a chat and Wendy very kindly said she would let me pass on her details to the Daily Mail journalist who had been hoping to speak to a few of the claimants about their cases (you can read her story here). Although the reason for being in London was very serious, the claimants around that table were naturally chatty people and there were the sort of smiles and pleasantries you’d expect on any big day out. As I walked back upstairs I thought what a lovely bunch they were, then shook my head as I remembered four of them were convicted criminals.
Something about that feels very troubling.
It’s going to be interesting hearing the arguments of the two sides over the courts of the next few days. I will be live-tweeting them here on twitter and posting a write-up as soon as I can each evening. I hope you can follow along with me.
Thanks again for the volumes of correspondence I have received over the last week. The emails and messages are now easily in the hundreds and I hope you will forgive me if I can’t always acknowledge or respond individually. I promise I do read every single one and I am extremely grateful for everything you send me. Please do err on the side of caution and pass on anything information you think I would find interesting. Documents are especially useful.