All human life is in the District Court, and some other life that might or might not be human.
As I walk in, the court is already in session and things are getting weird. A well known local solicitor is strolling around with one black shoe and one brown, open-toed sandal — not a good look with a navy pinstriped suit and to make it worse, the stripes are the kind that go better with a violin case than a paper folder. I don’t know what happened his foot, but I suppose he must have put it in the wrong place.
The TV licence inspectors are giving evidence and the judge is dividing the charge sheets into two piles. People who turned up in court go to one side and the no-shows go to the other. From experience, I know that’s not a good thing for them, but in fairness to the judge, he’s courteous and humane about it. He listens to the evidence, he asks the people to explain themselves and if they’ve bought a licence he lets them off with a warning. Even if they have a good excuse, he gives them a break, adjourning the case to January or February. Those who don’t turn up get tougher treatment with fines up to €250 plus another €70 costs on top, and they still have to go out and buy their licence. They have four weeks to pay, or else it’s the slammer for two days, locked up with the skobes, lowlifes and junkies the same judge has sent on a rather longer holiday. As a solicitor once said, when I asked him about going to prison rather than pay a parking fine, It’s not a place for civilians.
Indeed. Which is why a Garda once told me apologetically when collecting one of those fines, Only the decent people pay. It’s true. The rest of them don’t give a rat’s ass about a couple of days in jail: it’s a chance to catch up with their buddies.
I’m an unrepentant, recidivist non-payer of parking fines, which is why I land myself in court too much. I know I should just pay the thing and be done with it but there’s something in my psyche that rejects the whole notion, and paralyses me if I ever try to settle my bills with the city council, until the urge passes.
It’s a friendly court this morning. The body language is good. Lawyers chat with police, and police chat amiably with defendants, though there’s a distinct chill between two local lawyers who recently found themselves before a court, with one of them accused of assaulting the other. No love lost there.
As for the defendants, it’s a pretty mild morning. No stabbings, no assaults, no robberies, apart from two young lads. One is a member of a notorious extended family and even though I never saw him before, I recognise his genetics by the standard-issue features he wears. The single transferable head shared by hundreds of brothers, uncles and grandfathers.
The other is a lad of about twenty. He doesn’t look especially menacing, or especially intelligent for that matter, but he’s handcuffed to a cop and he’s smirking in a weak attempt at bravado. There’s a gang of sisters of girlfriends for moral support, all spray-tanned and all with very large earrings and dyed blonde hair. In uniform, you might say. He gets sent away to jail on remand until his case is heard and I’d love to know what he did, but I couldn’t hear, with all the coughing and the squeaking seats and slamming doors. It’s a noisy place, the courtroom.
Over there, I spot a well-known radio presenter who works during the day as a solicitor. He stands up to address the judge and I’m expecting him to shout Hands in the air like you just don’t care! But he doesn’t. Instead he mutters something about more discussions and the judge writes something on a piece of paper. This isn’t the X Factor.
In front of me, a young solicitor is going through his file. There’s a page headed with the words Telephone Attendance and ten or twelve lines of text. I wonder how much that attendance was worth in billable hours? I once dealt with one of those fancy-dan Dublin companies who charge by the inch thickness of file, or by weight, whichever is greater. A lawyer told me in all seriousness that people who work in these companies have a timer by their phone, and every time you call them, or they call you, the clock starts ticking. I believe him. I never came across a nastier, more cold-blooded lizard than the little fellow I had to deal with.
The court business is dragging on. I slipped my summons to a solicitor buddy when I came in, and now he’s making tortured faces at me. He crooks a finger so I slide over to him.
This fucking thing is going on far too long.
Tell me about it, I agree.
Still, I’d better stay so I settle back into my seat while they move on to the welfare fraud cases. Oddly enough, everyone on the list has five or six children, even though they can hardly afford to feed themselves, if you believed what their solicitors tell the judge. One guy has convictions for fraud going back years. He’s straight out of Central Casting, with a bonehead haircut showing the scars of assorted broken bottles, knives or hatchets acquired during an eventful life.
How much is he paying back? asks the judge.
€6 a week.
What? He’ll be paying this for the rest of his life. And wait, what about the previous convictions? Has he paid back that money?
The judge isn’t impressed, but at the same time, it’s obvious this case is going nowhere. The defendant might be a thief, but he’s also flat broke, and maybe he really did need the extra money. For all I know, his appearance as a thug and a general scumbag might belie the reality of a gentle caring man who loves children and can’t have enough of them.
How much is he getting a week?
€461, says Rumpole of the Sandal.
€400, Rumpole tells him.
I thought you said –
No, it’s €400.
The judge adjourns the case so that a full statement of means can be produced and the merry-go-round carries on spinning.
The noise is getting worse and the judge is getting sick of nonsense. Rumpole is representing some company director accused of failing to produce documents, I think for the Revenue.
He’s just an ordinary working man, says Rumpole.
Don’t give me that guff, snaps the judge, and all the solicitors stifle a nasty little chuckle.
I’m getting bored. My solicitor is getting bored. He’s making throat-cutting gestures at me. What? I mime.
You’re going down, my son, and he gestures towards the door, where a group of traffic wardens have just entered, like a bunch of dejected, unshaven, overweight, unwashed dark Jedi. Everyone in the courtroom glares at them with barely concealed hatred. Even the serial killers and mass murderers move away slightly and tut-tut with a tight-lipped frown.
As the cases move on to illegal dumping, the Knights of the Double Yellow Line flop down like discarded mattresses and wait their moment in the sun, but it seems that time might never come unless we can get done with all these miscreants. Jesus, the dumping fines are pretty savage, I’m glad to say. People who failed to pay the on-the-spot fine of €100 are being hit for that, plus another €190 in costs, though for the life of me I can’t see how each of these prosecutions cost the council that much.
I’m getting very bored. Two or three other criminals like myself have wandered in, and I recognise one of them.
Parking? I ask him.
Don’t get me started, he hisses.
My eminent jurist is making agonised faces at me. Come here.
You can fuck off.
So can you, I tell him. I didn’t come here to be insulted.
No, he says. You can fuck off out of here. I’ll deal with it myself.
Jesus. Now he tells me.
Yeah. Go on.
I haven’t heard from him yet, but he’ll probably get me ten years hard labour. He’s good that way. I wonder if I’ll meet Sean Quinn?