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Justice should be HEARD by everyone

Westminster Magistrates Court

Westminster Magistrates Court

Kaye Stearman explains, as far as she is able, what happened when BAE pleaded guilty in court.
Tuesday 23 November 2010

9.45 – I arrive at Westminister Magistrates Court in Horseferry Road, a building with all the architectual charm of a multi-story parking lot and the security checks of a minor international airport. I head towards the waiting area outside Court no 1 on the third floor (bypassing the out-of-order lift). Sarah Sexton from The Corner House  has arrived from deepest Dorset while Barnaby Pace, a freelance reasearcher on the arms trade, arrives soon after. Lots of legal looking figures in dark suits mill around. We try to figure out who is here for our case, SFO vs BAE (that’s Serious Fraud Office vs BAE Systems) and who is involved in the other, more usual, cases.

10.00 – Our case is listed for 10am but the court isn’t open yet. Nothing much to do, except stand around speculating who’s who and what is likely to happen.

10.10 – More standing around. Television dramas make courts dramatic places but from my experience of jury service, you spend more time waiting for something to happen.

10.20 – The courtroom is opened and in we go. We join half a dozen other individuals in the viewer’s gallery, separated from the courtroom by the sort of glass shutters you would find in a garden shed. At least our seats are comfy.

10.30 – We have had plenty of time to observe the courtroom – pity nothing much is happening. People wander in and out, exchanging greetings. The most entertaining are a couple of women who look and sound like they have arrived from the set of Eastenders – a colourful contrast to the men in suits. What’s going on? Wish we knew.

10.40 – Here comes the judge. She looks concerned, competent. We stand for her entrance. She speaks – a nice voice and we can hear her. The first case, not ours, is heard – or rather seen, because I can hardly hear a thing from the guy in the witness box. Maybe it’s me – I know my hearing isn’t always the best. But everyone else seems to be straining as well. The case involves something about a child and there are reporting restrictions so maybe it’s deliberately blurred. Once the big-shot lawyers start talking then everything will be clear – won’t it?

10.45 – Here it is, SFO vs BAE Systems. The SFO lawyer gets up to speak – I still can’t hear clearly. The odd phrase stumbles into my ear – “1985 Companies Act”, “change corporation for company”, “both agreed”, “jusridiction”. Then the BAE lawyer speaks. His words are equally blurred and baffling but at least there is one thing I can understand: “GUILTY”.

Yes, BAE is pleading guilty. Alas, not sure for what but it must be the “accounting irregularities” as agreed by the plea bargain. No mention at all of Tanzania, radar systems, commission agents, Red Diamond, swiss bank accounts.

Finally the judge speaks again. It seems that the two lawyers have agreed on a date for the settlement hearing. And the date – Monday 20 December. This is a shock as we had expected the case to go into the next year. Now it will all be wrapped up for Xmas – what a nice present for someone. The phrase “a good day to bury bad news” flashes into my mind.

10.50 – That’s it, SFO vs BAE is over in just five minutes with about 30 seconds of comprehension on my part. Surely, justice should be HEARD as well as seen (not that we saw much anyway).

11.00 – Some chitchat with the others and I head back to the CAAT office while Sarah braves the enquiries counter to get the details of the charge. A passing usher is able to tell us the name of the judge (Tubbs) but we haven’t caught the names of either of the barristers. Next step is to write the press release and start preparing for 20 December at Southwark. Let’s hope everyone will be able to HEAR it properly.

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