Those who spend their lives working in the courts have perhaps got used to the drama, emotions and melee of the environment. For others who visit less frequently, like me, it is a sobering encounter, and a chance to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Edinburgh Sheriff Court deals with around 13,000 criminal cases every year. Solicitors, sheriffs, court officers, social workers, witnesses, police officers, security staff, accused persons, complainers and usually pre-covid, journalists, family members and many more, make the court a discombobulating environment.
Perhaps a sign reading ‘All human life is here’ should hang over the entrance to our courts. There’s every emotion on display in a short four-hour period. It’s an alien environment for many, but for others a frequent destination.
Notable on my visit to the lower levels of the court was a particular drama which was probably unnoticed by many, but perhaps a regular occurrence.
A tall young man, let’s call him Joe, clearly under the influence of some substances, was asking all and sundry, if they had seen his lawyer. It was as if he had an exclusion zone around him, as everyone avoided his gaze, and swerved around him. As time went on he became more agitated and an ‘intervention’ was imminent.
At this moment a ‘courts officer’ appeared from Court 6. As he progressed along the corridor he cheerily greeted the solicitors, police officers and others waiting for court. As he reached Joe, he greeted him like all the others, held his gaze, asked him how he was and in an instant the unfolding scene changed.
The dignity and respect shown by this one court officer defused and changed a whole situation. Joe had taken methadone before arriving, was distressed because he couldn’t find his solicitor and had no charge on his phone.
He had turned up in the only clean tracksuit he had, and was keen to get his case heard and take whatever disposal was forthcoming.
The court officer, obviously busy, addressed each of Joe’s problems, made a call there and then, and told him to sit and wait till he returned. Efficient, warm, calm, measured, hugely professional – he never missed a beat. His interaction changed Joe and in turn, everyone else in that court area. Apologies emanated from Joe to all who would hear them.
Dignity and respect can change the most challenging of situations and I asked the solicitor I was with who the court officer was.
“I don’t know – we just know him as ‘Fast Eddie’,” the one who everyone goes to when they need help or advice. Eddie exemplified the ‘no wrong door’ principle. He didn’t say it wasn’t his job, he took the responsibility to make things better and not worse for someone who needed help.
A court is a venue for many very vulnerable people, regardless of the role they are playing – accused, complainer, witness – it’s a place for intervention and support, and can be a place where people admit to the broader challenges that bring them back. I need to perfect my human cloning techniques - we could all do with more Fast Eddies.
– Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland