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Tue 20 August 2019
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Byline Times’ court reporter James Doleman documents a bizarre run of cases on his return to the press gallery after a hiatus from the courts.

It’s the holiday season and the courts are, other than urgent cases, pretty much shut down.

It’s technically coming up for end of ‘Trinity Term’ and I’ve been thinking about my year back writing about our courts. Sadly, there is only one way to sum it up 2019 so far: the year of terrible arguments.

It’s not always been like this.

I spent an afternoon once in the Old Bailey during which six top QCs argued about the page numbers in a document – “The Great Pagination Debate” we ended up calling it. It sounds dull, but the legal arguments, the precedents cited, the great principles of jurisprudence invoked, were fascinating. I just wish I could remember what the outcome was.

However, 2019 hasn’t been like that.

My first case back was brought by a former journalist, Dennis Rice, who wanted the High Court in England to remove a reference to him from a witness statement. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Mann, gently explained at the start of the hearing that no court in the world had the power to tell a witness to change their evidence. Yet, Mr Rice persisted, representing himself for a whole day, before Mann ruled the obvious. Having his day in court cost Mr Rice £60,000. 

It had to get better, I thought. It didn’t.  

Next up was Glasgow Sheriff Court, where the Orange Order, a Protestant group which likes to march around the streets, was objecting to a city council order asking them to re-route their procession from in front a Catholic church where one of their supporters had just been convicted of spitting on a priest.

Their counsel made his argument based on human rights, and the Orange Order’s longstanding duty to march past places of worship blaring out their tunes. Yet, when the Sheriff asked “why is so important that you march past a Catholic church?” he had no answer. 

Needless to say, they didn’t win.

There was a first for me in that hearing though. I was pulled out of court by three police officers. The charge? I was typing too loudly. That’s the only afternoon I’ve ever spent trying to type quietly. Try it, it’s not easy.

Then came Natalie Mcgarry.

She was a former SNP Member of Parliament who was accused of embezzling money from various Scottish Independence groups. Just before her trial, and without legal representation, she unexpectedly pleaded guilty. The next week, McGarry, now with a lawyer, tried to withdraw her guilty plea, but the judge wasn’t having it and, without hearing any evidence, sentenced her to 18 months in jail. I wrote about it here. The small point I was trying to make was that everyone deserves a fair trial, to challenge the evidence against them. It didn’t go down well.

Byline Times published my piece on the Monday after the verdict. By Tuesday morning, I was receiving angry emails from senior figures in the Scottish court system demanding a retraction. I was sent legal opinions about how I had misinterpreted the law – a guilty plea was a guilty plea. My throwaway aside, that the Scottish legal system seemed to work on the basis of “no backsies”, went down like a bucket of cold sick.

To be honest, I panicked a little bit, which has never happened to me before. It appears the Scottish judiciary does not handle journalists expressing mild disagreement well. However, in conjunction with our great editors here at Byline Times, we offered to publish a statement with their comments. That afternoon, the appeal court freed Ms McGarry. I phoned and asked if we were still to expect a statement about how wrong we were to publish. We are still waiting for it. 

Yet, that was not the ultimate in my year so far of terrible arguments.

That honour is reserved for The Woodstock of misinformation: the case of “Tommy Robinson”.

The trial of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon marked a weird low point. It was open and shut legally, he had breached a reporting restriction in a series of linked trials of sexual abusers, potentially setting some of them free despite their crimes.

But, in court, his poor, poor barrister was forced to employ the most ludicrous arguments you could imagine. At one point, he showed the court a video of a BBC reporter – who was sitting behind me – asking Yaxley-Lennon a question as he came into court. “This is the same,” he tried to argue. It was embarrassing, I couldn’t even look.

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It’s been great being back at court and to be writing for Byline Times about it. But, can I ask one favour from the defendants and legal teams I cover? For the rest of 2019, can we have some legal arguments that make sense?

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