Down by the river: junkies and justice

Glasgow Sheriff Court

Glasgow Sheriff Court

It’s a building I’ve never properly noticed before as it squats on the south bank of the Clyde. Now I wonder how I managed to miss it.

The river sparkles in the fresh early morning sunshine but the building casts its shadows as it gears-up for another day of dispensing justice.

This is the Glasgow Sheriff Court, reputedly the busiest court in Europe in one of those grim records Glasgow seems to excel in.

The forecourt is a place for cigarettes snatched to soothe the nerves of the accused, the witnesses, the families. Some of them shrink fearfully behind the pillars. Shivering wrecks ferociously suck on fags with intense sunken-eyed expressions. Others, bold as brass (or gallus in the local parlance), parade up and down the concourse treating it as a social occasion, greeting acquaintances and making new ones. It’s all on the endless turn of the wheel for them. A woman laughs loudly, staggers a little and tells anyone who can hear that she got the date of her court appearance wrong. She is amused by this and celebrates by scrounging a cigarette off a sharp-suited lawyer. He gives her one and moves away, hastily.

Opposite me two people are smoking a few metres apart. They are slightly turned away from each, both in their late twenties, both attractive with intelligent eyes but there the similarity ends. One is well-groomed in a smart suit beneath a gown. The other has a wasted face, greasy neglected hair and spotty skin, wearing cheap nylon clothes. And you wonder about the postcode lottery of birth.

Inside the building is more light and airy than its grim, concrete exterior would suggest. There is a hushed orderly calm. Police are standing round the reception chatting with a relaxed air of not anticipating trouble.  Well-groomed, healthy looking law professionals purposefully stride down the corridors with swishing gowns. They clutch briefs and documents and carry the air of their world and their game. It is a game reviled and feared but it is the mark of a civilised nation and they know it.

Inside the courtroom there is the smooth move through the procedures. We sit, around forty of us, waiting for jury selection. The accused is brought-in. A couple know the accused and they are dismissed. Glasgow can be a small place or they just can’t bothered with the whole thing and have found their way out. A bearded man in a smart official jacket imperiously gazes around his courtroom like some maritime sergeant-in-arms. He no doubt has some obscure or arcane title for his job, which seems to be preserving the sanctity of the courtroom. I’m not so sure what he has to look so superior about since he has failed in his duties for carved into the back of the benches are homages to the accused, curses, a stick man swinging from the gallows. Minor vandalism conducted with a bit of nerve operating below the radar of contempt of court.

Officials come and go. Papers are shuffled. Conversations are whispered. The cogs and wheels of a vast, opaque system are moving. Eventually I am not selected but I sit around for a while. There seems to be lots of sitting, waiting.

The cry goes up: “All rise!” And of course instantly and unthinkingly we all do. The judge swishes in not even bothering to check we have all obeyed. He knows we have. Besides he has his maritime bouncer to sort anything out. This moment is pure nonsense. We are rising for the least important person in the court. It should the accused we are rising for because if they discovered their power and stayed out of trouble this whole edifice would come crashing down. The legal systems and university courses, the prisons,  the politicians posturing on crime, the bureaucracy, the jobs and profits, the police, the drugs wars spawning multi-billion pound industries grimly latched onto the system while lobbying and wailing for more. All of it, everything is constructed to feed on the one person there they could not do without: the accused.

See also: Down by the river – the abandoned docks

9 thoughts on “Down by the river: junkies and justice

    • Thanks for the comment and agreed! I was being a tad facetious of course but it struck me on the day how much inefficiency and pomp there was in trying some poor sod for drug offences that could be regarded more as a public health rather than a criminal problem. But that’s a whole can of worms for another day (and possibly a different blog!).

      Have a look at excellent The House I Live In documentary which explores the war on drugs in America. It’s fascinating.


  1. A thought provoking piece, I enjoyed it. I was called for jury service some years ago now and it was a strange experience. We found the chap guilty despite some soul searching…and as soon as the verdict was pronounced, the prosecution handed the judge a massive sheaf of further offences ! I found it all a bit sad and like you, I thought about the whole system…and why we are called upon to send someone to jail..


    • Thanks Iain. Went through a similar process of jury service with some armed robbers although our jury had to be replaced by a new one. A much nastier crime with scared victims but again this feeling of wasted potential, blighted lives and poor circumstances right from birth. Then again, I guess we all have choices, and many in a similar situation choose not get a gun, terrify a bank clerk and steal.


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